With the Minneapolis Police Department under fire for complaints of police misconduct and racism, Mayor Betsy Hodges and Police Chief Janee Harteau sought to persuade city residents Wednesday night that those concerns were being heard and acted on.
The meeting was attended by about 100 people at Macedonia Baptist Church, and came on the heels of a U.S. Department of Justice draft audit of officer discipline procedures that found the department's system for spotting bad officer behavior needs an overhaul.
"It seems that officers appear to arrive on scenes where there are residents of color more than ready to fight," said Liz Oppenheimer of Minneapolis at the meeting. "It's like tackle or shoot right now, ask questions later. And yet those same officers can go to scenes where there are white residents and it seems a very different type of officer steps out of the car. That discrepancy of behavior not only needs to be addressed, it needs to be stopped."
Mayor Betsy Hodges took note of the tension.
"It is critically important that we get right the issue of the relationship between our police department and our community," she told the gathering.
Earlier Wednesday, Hodges described her vision for the city in an open letter posted online. The mayor specifically said the police department must deal with problem officers before misconduct occurs. Hodges also said she would "not tolerate racist speech and actions on the force," and also wanted the city to work with schools and other organizations to recruit a more diverse group of officers.
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Harteau told the audience she had a plan to make the police department reflect the city in its racial makeup. The Minneapolis police department right now employs more than 20 percent people of color. Citing her own Native American roots, Harteau told those at the meeting she wants to increase that percentage.
"I would hope that people would also see that you have a female person of color as your police chief," she said. "That also sends messages to people in our community that, 'You know what, now there's somebody that looks like me and is like me at the top of the organization.' And I assure you I know what discrimination feels like."
Harteau also said she welcomed the Justice Department audit, which she requested. The report reviewed records from six years of internal investigations and two police review boards.
Some of the findings show a 45 percent drop in complaints to internal affairs. But reviewers also say the department needs to improve its early intervention system.
Steve Rickman, a senior advisor with the Justice Programs Office, said he sees progress within MPD, but added that changes take time.
"The leadership is enlightened," he said. "They've taken some very important steps. But change doesn't occur over night. It takes a while for these things to filter down to transform police culture, and to also build community trust."
Harteau faced criticism last month when she withdrew from an event similar to Wednesday's, hours before it was scheduled to begin. She said at the time she was concerned protests could pose a safety risk. The session went on without her, and there were no reports of violence.
Harteau and Hodges will hold two more community conversations later this month, on Oct. 14 in north Minneapolis and one in Cedar-Riverside on Oct. 30.
The final DOJ audit report will be available in four to six weeks.