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Fred de Sam Lazaro
Fred de Sam Lazaro
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George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police in Minneapolis three years ago led to a widespread push for police reform and racial justice. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro sat down with the new police chief in Minneapolis to talk about the challenges of the past few years and the department's future.
George Floyd's murder at the hands of police in Minneapolis three years ago led to a widespread push for police reform and racial justice.
Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro sat down with the new police chief in Minneapolis to talk about the challenges of the past few years and the department's future.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:
Brian O'Hara was sworn in as the 54th police chief in Minneapolis last November. He took over a department at the center of calls for changes to policing, a department also down hundreds of officers since 2020.
O'Hara came from Newark, New Jersey, where he led efforts to bring that city's police department in line with the federal consent decree. In March, Minneapolis reached a settlement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights with legally binding reforms, including limits to traffic stops and use of force and emphasis on de-escalation and additional training.
A federal consent decree is widely expected here as well.
We spoke with Chief O'Hara this week, and asked him about the work of implementing the kinds of changes those agreements require.
Brian O’Hara, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Police Chief:
I don't think of it as a checklist of stuff to do and then prove to the court and to a monitor that you have done it.
I think it is more about trying to change the culture of the agency. The number one thing that we need to do, besides trying to rebuild the sworn staffing levels, would be to engage community in this process, to make sure that community feel like they have a voice in what the training would look like in the future, what reforms actually look like here in the city.
And I think that's going to be a very difficult lift here. I think it's going to be much harder than it was in Newark, simply because people here have been through so much trauma, and that has not been addressed. But, also, I think this is a much more engaged community in a lot of respects than what I have seen previously.
And you have to deal with several political realities, one of which is resistance from the MPD union, which has already expressed its skepticism. The union head is quoted as saying some of the training is a potential logistical nightmare, for example.
I think she is correct. The settlement agreement that we have with the state and any federal consent decree is a gargantuan task, but it is the way forward and it's what we have to do.
And I'm OK if it takes us some time to figure that out. I'm OK if we have to engage community, take a little bit more time to make sure that we are getting things right, and that we're not jeopardizing public safety when we're trying to implement all of these kinds of gargantuan requirements.
Last month, the city of Minneapolis reached multimillion-dollar settlements with two people who alleged excessive force by Derek Chauvin years before he fatally knelt on George Floyd's neck.
In a statement, O'Hara called Chauvin a national embarrassment, but said there was — quote — "a systemic failure within the Minneapolis Police Department that allowed for and even at times encouraged unjust and brutal policing."
It's very frustrating that, three years after George Floyd's murder, we're still dealing with the conduct of the former officer who murdered him.
The most frustrating part is, different supervisors had reviewed that former officer's conduct previously, and, clearly, as an agency, we were not able to hold that officer — that former officer accountable. And that's why I think it's very clearly a systems problem, as opposed to trying to just scapegoat one or two persons here or here or there.
So I think it — that's why I think it is much deeper than just dealing with that one former officer.
You go out on patrol frequently. You have gone to the site of all homicides, as I understand.
What can you tell us about your tenure thus far, both being on the street, and elsewhere in this job?
After everything that has happened here, I think people in this community are entitled to a police chief that is engaged.
And in order for me to be engaged, I need to be present. Over the last three years, the police officers here experienced an incredible amount of trauma. And so, to some degree, while people were leaving the job, I think there was definitely, on some level, a retreat from doing police work, from doing proactive police work. There was a fear.
And I think if we're going to be in a position where both we're going to address serious street crime in a very real way, I have to be able to tell the cops, I need you to do your job.
At the same time, we need to be able to earn people's trust. Regardless of whatever settlement agreement there is, regardless of a consent decree, we're going to continue to be president for community and we're going to continue to be the police.
Though higher than before the pandemic, the city has seen a drop so far this year in homicides, shots fired and carjackings, compared to the same time in 2022.
O'Hara credits the officers who've stayed with the department.
The cops who work in Minneapolis today who have been here, who have endured, just like our residents, all of this trauma, all of this uncertainty, possibly disbanding the police department and all these things, I think they are incredibly resilient.
But we are definitely at a very, very critical point, where we need to keep pushing forward, because I do think there's a great risk that we could slide backwards.
That push forward has not been without missteps.
Earlier this month, the news Web site Minnesota Reformer reported O'Hara personally signed a job offer letter for a former Virginia police officer who repeatedly Tasered and struck an unarmed Black man in 2020.
You have ordered a full investigation into that hiring. First, is there any update? And do you worry that something like this undermines credibility of the department's efforts?
Of course, that's a very serious concern of mine. Obviously, I was not happy about it once I learned fully about that person's history.
But, yes, I mean, the matter remains under investigation. The actual process remains under investigation, because how could the, if you will, sort of the rubric for conducting these — hiring and all the different layers of review that there is in the process, how can something like this not be flagged?
I can assure the public that we will be making some very significant changes to the process, to the structure of how these things are conducted to make sure that something like that does not happen again.
You would like to have a few hundred more officers on your staff quickly.
What attributes might we see in this new crop that did not exist in prior ones?
Police departments everywhere are having real challenges with staffing levels and finding recruits.
But I think nowhere else in the country is it more pronounced than here in Minneapolis. I think there is a very negative perception that is not connected to the reality of who the Minneapolis police officers are today, and what we're trying to accomplish.
I want to be very intentional about trying to focus on young people from Minneapolis who have connections, who have love for our city, but also on those candidates, wherever they may be, that want to be a part of getting this right.
Chief Brian O'Hara, thank you for sharing. We appreciate it.
Thank you so much for having me.
Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
Watch the Full Episode
Fred de Sam Lazaro is director of the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, a program that combines international journalism and teaching. He has served with the PBS NewsHour since 1985 and is a regular contributor and substitute anchor for PBS' Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.
Sam Lane is reporter/producer in PBS NewsHour's segment unit.
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