Mpls. police chief pulls out of community meeting, citing protest concerns

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Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau
Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau pulled out of a community meeting Thursday night over concerns about protests.
Peter Cox / MPR News

Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau pulled out of a community meeting Thursday night over concerns about protests.

Harteau said she had received information from a person she called a long standing community leader on north Minneapolis that the meeting at the Sabathani Community Center on the city's south side would be disrupted.

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"There were some other things planned," the chief said. "People had discussed agitators set inside the meeting, those whose goal was to get arrested, that regardless of what was said or done, they were to be disruptive and that was further confirmed by some Facebook posts about direct action."

"Social media is a great tool, but it also provides people a platform to get very emotionally charged and maybe say things that they don't mean," Harteau said. "I can't take the chance that they're just threats. I have to look at them as potential reality."

The group Neighborhoods Organizing for Change last week accused the city's police of "purposefully creating a culture of harassment and intimidation of African-Americans" after an officer cited two of its members for trespassing at a Cub Foods store. Another group, calling itself the Coalition for Critical Change, said on Facebook it was planning an "action" at the event.

"I'm sad and disappointed that she decided not to come," said City Council Member Alondra Cano, who organized the event. "I think it's the wrong decision. I'm very comfortable with public protests, and I think that's part of the work we do. It involves folks expressing their freedom of speech. I guess she just felt that the risks were a little too high, and that she couldn't really gamble on this one."

Harteau's change in plans disappointed and frustrated residents of Minneapolis' 9th Ward and others hoping to talk with her about police and racism. About 150 people attended the gathering.

"I'm really bothered by Chief Harteau's decision not to participate in a community forum focused on police accountability, which we know is one of the most serious issues impacting our community," said moderator Nekima Levy-Pounds, a professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School.

Uniformed police also stayed away from the forum.

The generally quiet audience brought signs, some wore red wrist bands to protest police brutality. Many talked in general terms about the racism they saw or experienced. Speaking at two mike stands, members of the racially-mixed audience said there was a lack of police accountability and too many petty arrests.

Nineteen-year-old Denisia Parker of North Minneapolis was among those who shared their experiences with the audience. She described what happened after she and her brother rode Metro Transit to school two years ago.

"We were stopped downtown by a police officer. He came up to us and he put my brother in handcuffs and he started walking off with him. I'm like what are you doing? What are you arresting him for, he said, 'For spitting.' What can you do in the moment of that happening to fix it?" she told the audience.

Council Member Cano said after the meeting that she plans to follow up on ordinances that prohibit things like lurking to see if they could be eliminated, and look at what else can be done to make the Minneapolis Police Chief more accountable.

"What can we do to change to make sure that the chief of police can respond to 13 council members, not just to the mayor. Because people here talked about the concentration of power, and how the concentration of power doesn't give residents the accountability level that they want or that they need," Cano said.

Cano said changes might even extend to how the chief of police is selected, including the possibility of having voters choose the chief of police.

"I think that's going to make anybody who is the chief of police more responsive to the community," Cano said.

Harteau said she's worried about a possible backlash for not attending, and not pleased that she missed a chance to talk with people who had questions.

"They're the ones I feel sorry for the most. And it's unfortunate. They should be able to have their time with me. And I'm happy to find a different way to do that. Because I still want to have the conversation," she said.

The Minneapolis City Council plans to vote Friday on whether to give some police officers body cameras. It's a pilot program that both Harteau and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges support.

MPR News' Brandt Williams contributed to this report.