Policing, Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau says, is mostly about interacting with people.
Sometimes that involves responding to dangerous situations, but it also means understanding communities that often differ demographically from the officer.
When she's not leading the state's largest police department, Harteau teaches a night class at St. Mary's University in Minneapolis to current and prospective officers about how to better understand the different communities they interact with.
The class starts with a range of questions from Harteau, who has a master's degree in public safety administration from St. Mary's. Where are you from? How many siblings do you have? Have you ever voted for a contestant on American Idol?
Harteau is not just trying to get to know her students better, she's illustrating a point central to the focus of her class: Demographic Influences on Policing.
"My focus is to not give them answers as much as to get them to ask better questions and from a different lens — a different frame of reference," she said.
Harteau wants this crop of current and prospective police officers to first consider how their own personal upbringing and social status affects how they see different communities. She said most officers come from middle-class families and like this class, were raised in the suburbs or small towns.
"The more we can have a wider scope the better we'll be as people and the better police officers we'll make," she said.
Several of Harteau's students are current Minneapolis police officers. Michael Sullivan, the commander of the third precinct and a veteran of the department, said one of the reasons he's taking the class is that the area of the city he serves has prominent Latino and Somali communities.
“This class is going to be great in learning that and putting my job duties and the education together.”Officer Michael Sullivan
"Being new in my role, I'm finding out very quickly how important diversity is," Sullivan said. "This class is going to be great in learning that and putting my job duties and the education together."
The Minneapolis Police Department is not that different from other urban police forces, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington D.C. He said as in Minneapolis, a large proportion of police officers in cities around the country are white, middle class and suburban. He said it is important to help them understand how to relate to the communities they serve.
"There was a time when someone went into the police academy and learned about policing simply by learning about rules and regulations and things like that," Wexler said. "There's a realization that policing and community policing in particular, that 80 percent of what police do is service related. So it means dealing with people and dealing with different kinds of people in different circumstances."
The Minneapolis Police Department is also hiring more officers of color. Harteau's class contains three Somali men — one of whom is in the department's new class of recruits.
According to police department data, 20 percent of sworn Minneapolis police officers are people of color. That's as diverse as the department has ever been, but is still not representative of the city as a whole. More than 30 percent of Minneapolis residents are ethnic and racial minorities.
Harteau is pleased to see the department becoming more racially diverse. However, only three women signed up for her class, and she worries that not enough women are showing interest in law enforcement careers.