A year of challenges and change for Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O'Hara

Chief O'Hara joined Cathy Wurzer Tuesday on Minnesota Now

Man in city council room
Brian O'Hara was confirmed as the new chief of police with the Minneapolis Police Department on Nov. 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2022

One year ago, Brian O’Hara became the new chief of the Minneapolis Police Department. The outsider from New Jersey was sworn in at a tumultuous time, bringing with him a promise of change.

In his first year in office, the new chief reorganized the department as the city contended with the ongoing aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police.

“Minneapolis was ground zero for a global reckoning on policing practices and racial justice,” O’Hara said in August as he announced the appointment of two new assistant chief positions.

“It’s clear to me that Minneapolis can be the model, in fact, Minneapolis must be the model for how we move forward through healing of shared trauma, coming up with innovative solutions hand-in-hand with our residents and police officers and, above all, keeping people safe.” 

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In his first year on the job, he’s faced a federal consent decree, recruitment woes and a protracted conflict about the site of the 3rd Precinct.

That precinct issue was resolved last week when the Minneapolis City Council voted 8-5 to approve a new site. The new 3rd Precinct building will be located at 2633 Minnehaha Ave., just a few blocks from the old precinct, and will include a community safety center.

O’Hara joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer Tuesday on Minnesota Now to reflect on his first year as chief and talk about the 3rd Precinct, staffing challenges, the new commissioner of public safety, year-over-year crime rates and more.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: It was a year ago today that Brian O'Hara was sworn in as the Minneapolis Police Department Chief. He came from New Jersey to lead the Minneapolis Department at a tumultuous time. So one year later, where does the department stand, and what does the future look like? Chief O'Hara is on the line to join us. Welcome back.

BRIAN O'HARA: Hi, Cathy. Thank you for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Thanks for being here. Well, the first year on the job saw a decent amount of movement among the command staff-- 18 appointments, nearly 100 transfers within the department. Why was that internal shuffling important to you?

BRIAN O'HARA: Well, I saw very early on, when I got here, that there was a lot of frustration among the rank and file. That they felt like despite everything that had happened over the last three years, a lot of people in the lower ranks were held accountable for some bad things that had happened. But frankly, they had lost confidence in some of the leadership here.

And on the other hand, what I learned from the folks who were in leadership position is a lot of them had been through a lot. And they needed a break for their own health and wellness. But making the change that was needed took time. I had to go to the state legislature and get a state law change in order to enact an organizational structure that I thought was needed to meet the challenges of accountability today, both over addressing serious crime and also addressing internal accountability over officers' behavior.

And by the time I was able to roll it out, I felt like I had a very good understanding of who our people are. And after having put these folks in place, I feel really confident that we have the right people in the right seats at this time. And I think that's helped re-energize the department even further, as we continue to work towards trying to reduce serious crime, while earning people's trust. And quite frankly, it's made my life easier as chief.

CATHY WURZER: You may have struck a nerve, though, with some folks. An outside law firm was brought in to investigate three complaints brought against you this year. What should the public know about those complaints?

BRIAN O'HARA: Well, I think it shows that I'm doing something right. Those complaints are not coming from citizens. Those complaints are coming internally from police officers. And I think it's true in any organization when a person comes in and makes change, there will be pushback. When I first got here, I naively assumed that when I met people in community, and I talked to officers on the street, naively, I thought what I was hearing from them was everyone wants change. That's not true.

What I learned is everyone wants progress. People do not necessarily want change. So as I move forward and I do things differently, and I change policies and go against the grain in terms of what people have been telling themselves through the last 20, 30 years is the right way to do things here, there's going to be blowback. Any organization where you make change, people are going to experience loss. And those people who experience loss are our people internally.

And that's something that I anticipated coming into this, but it is a little different in Minnesota, how the complaint process works. And I think, quite frankly, officers here have become very good at weaponizing the complaint process against each other over the years.

CATHY WURZER: So I'm thinking, then, with the state and federal consent decrees coming down the pike, that equals change, right? And I'm curious, how did the rank and file feel about these consent decrees and the oncoming changes?

BRIAN O'HARA: I think, for the most part, the rank and file here have, just like so many of our residents, still have a whole lot of open wounds. I think there's a lot of challenges that remain to officers' morale. It's traumatizing in a typical police officer's career to go from call to call, where you're just seeing humanity at its worst, from going on one call where you're giving a person Narcan, trying to save their life, to 30 seconds later, you're responding to a domestic violence call. Like, seeing that type of stuff repeatedly is not normal. And it has an effect on police officers' outlook over the course of a career.

Then you add in what the cops in Minneapolis have experienced, from the destruction of the city to, day after day, seeing 40% of their coworkers leave the job. That's incredibly traumatizing as it is. So now they've been living through this, where they feel like they've been painted with a broad brush by the whole world and a perception of them as individuals that is just not accurate with who they are.

The people who are here are very dedicated, I believe, to trying to get this thing right. And now there's all this uncertainty about what do these consent decrees mean for me personally. And what I try to provide is some reassurance that having been through this before, I know we can get through this. And I know we will be OK. But that being said, I do not look at the state agreement or a federal consent decree as what we need to do, and that's it. I don't look at it as a checklist of things, and everything's going to be better.

I'm here to try and make real change. I'm trying to make the residents actually feel and experience policing in this city differently. And that's why I've changed policies already that are things that were not identified by the feds or the state that I believe are culturally needed in order for us to change differently. I eliminated the maximal restraint technique. I eliminated the hobble.

I raised the threshold for the use of 40 millimeters, aside from a whole variety of smaller policies that I think needed to be changed, just to communicate a better respect for community because I believe firmly that if we address the small things, the bigger things will take care of themselves. And I'm hopeful that once the DOJ comes in and once we have a monitor in place, we will have more people who are about not only making change real, but also supporting our officers as we go through that process.

CATHY WURZER: One of the big changes-- in order to implement change, of course, you're going to have to have bodies, right? And of course, you mentioned this just a couple of minutes ago about your ranks are thin, obviously. Recruitment is a big, big problem. What happens if you can't get to where you need to be in staffing? What's the fallback plan?

BRIAN O'HARA: That's absolutely not an option. I think it's clear from the data, we've made incredible progress this year reducing violence and building trust and community. We've been very intentional about that. Next year, we absolutely have to focus on continuing our foot on the gas with those two goals, but also rebuilding the department. It takes a long time in Minnesota to get someone from candidate to where they're able to go to the academy and be on the street as a police officer. And that's absolutely essential.

The staffing numbers that we are at today are just not sustainable. A lot of the reductions that we have seen in violence is because we've had law enforcement at the federal, state, and county level supporting us, trying to go after as precisely as possible the worst of the worst, the people who are out here causing the most harm in our community, and getting them off the street.

At the same time, we've had a whole lot of community-based organizations that have really been out there themselves in a complementary fashion, trying to resolve conflicts peacefully, trying to defuse situations, trying to take back corners themselves. And I think because everybody's kind of been rowing in the same direction, not worried about who's going to take credit for and get credit for the results that happen, the city's been doing great. But it's absolutely not sustainable, and we cannot continue to rely so much on outside partners who may not always be here.

CATHY WURZER: Say, I'm wondering, are you going to have to hire or create more positions that are filled by folks without law enforcement licenses? Some departments are doing that.

BRIAN O'HARA: Yes, that's something we are doing. Additional positions are included in the budget that the mayor has presented for 2024. And that's absolutely a direction that we need to continue to go in. I'm trying to create a Force Investigations Unit in Internal Affairs that will be largely civilian investigators and other positions. We've created an implementation unit that will focus on compliance and implementation of federal and state consent decrees.

We have civilian investigators that are embedded because we've lost nearly 60% of our investigators over the last three years. All of those positions are needed, particularly as investigations become more complicated. There's video that have to be reviewed, things that have to be prepared to present to prosecutors for charges. Those are all things that civilians can do. However, it doesn't take away from the fact that we absolutely need more sworn law enforcement officers.

And what's troubling when you have such a dramatic drop in sworn staffing at the same time as you have the increase in serious crime is that one of the first things that goes is community engagement. And that's something that can't be relegated to some corner of the police department.

That's something that we need every cop in the car to be able to have some time every day to engage with particularly the young people in our community, so that people can see our officers in a non-law enforcement setting. We are never going to change people's perception of this police department, that the only thing that we do is continue to show up and do something negative and enforce the law.

CATHY WURZER: So reportedly, your relationship with the former community safety commissioner was tense at times. You have a new boss, Todd Barnett. What did you learn from your first experience that may help with this new one?

BRIAN O'HARA: Well, I had a good relationship with the former commissioner. The judge, the new commissioner coming in, Judge Barnett, I think is going to be very helpful because he offers a very different perspective. Particularly at a time where we're trying to do things so differently, to me, it's very helpful to have someone who is used to hearing different perspectives and weighing them. I think he's kind of uniquely qualified to be here in this moment and I have a great relationship with him. And I'm excited about what the future holds.

CATHY WURZER: Say, I got to ask you this. Your wife is a Newark cop, a lieutenant on that force. She's still in Newark, I know. No plans to move here, right?

BRIAN O'HARA: She does have plans to move here, but the problem that we have is I left the pension early. So she needs to stay to complete her time. So as soon as she does that, she will be here with me. She'll be here this weekend. She's here very often, which gets to be expensive, but there are plenty of direct flights from Newark to Minneapolis.

CATHY WURZER: And what advice does she give you when the going gets tough?

BRIAN O'HARA: My wife is one of these people who-- I mean, I wish I was better at it. She has this incredible ability to see through the negative and remain focused on what's important. And she always reminds me that God has a higher purpose, and it was totally unforeseeable that I would wind up here in the first place. But it's faith and that we believe that I am here by design, and that continue to have faith that there is a greater purpose behind what we're doing.

CATHY WURZER: All right. I appreciate your time. Thank you for looking back at the first year on the job. We'll talk to you soon.

BRIAN O'HARA: Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Chief O'Hara of Minneapolis Police Department. Next week is also the one year anniversary of the Saint Paul Police Chief Axel Henry. He'll be joining the program next week.

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