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Ex-Minneapolis police chief Harteau is out, but not down

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Chief Harteau answers media questions.
Janee Harteau, center, stood with police inspector Michael Kjos, left, and assistant chief Medaria Arradondo and answered media questions after the Ruszczyk shooting last month.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Janeé Harteau says she did all she could to rush back to the city last month from a hiking trip after hearing one of her officers, responding to a 911 call, had shot and killed the caller. But by the time she returned, the damage was done.

The killing of Justine Ruszczyk by officer Mohamed Noor sent the city reeling and morphed into an international incident. Nearly a week later, Harteau was out, with Mayor Betsy Hodges demanding her resignation.

That blindsided the chief, who says now she initially didn't realize the depth of anger ignited by the shooting — or the political fallout to come.

"I wasn't in a place where I could see what was happening," Harteau, 52, told MPR News in her first media interview since her ouster. It took two plane trips and a three-hour car ride to get back to Minnesota, she said, nearly four days after the shooting. 

"I was in communication with my team, and I'm the one that requested the BCA (Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) be activated. And we know from history that things take time," Harteau said. "At no time did anybody say, 'This is bad. You need to come back, chief.'"

Mpls police chief Janee Harteau has a lot of memories in her office.
Harteau cleaned out her office this week.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Harteau said she's aware of how politics shape decisions at City Hall, and that Hodges is facing a tough re-election bid this fall. But she didn't criticize the mayor. "My focus," Harteau said, "has always been to not be impacted by politics, to just focus on what I felt was best for the city, the police department." 

It was a stunning fall for a veteran officer who'd climbed through the Minneapolis Police Department ranks and won widespread national applause when she took over the force. 

In 2012, Harteau became the city's first woman and first openly gay police chief. Almost immediately, she was thrust into the national spotlight when President Barack Obama made Minneapolis his first stop in a tour promoting "common sense" gun control measures.

"That was quite an honor," said Harteau, who has a picture of her meeting Obama two months after she was sworn in. "That's how I started my tenure as chief is introducing the president when he came to Minneapolis," said Harteau. "And then I rolled out MPD 2.0 in February and then things rapidly changed. But that's the nature of policing."

MPD 2.0 was the umbrella term for Harteau's vision for policing, which included a focus on accountability and transparency. As the new head of a police department that has struggled to win over the trust of African- Americans and other people of color, Harteau wanted her officers to treat the public the way they would want their own family members to be treated. 

President Obama and Cheif Harteau
President Barack Obama is introduced by Harteau at the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations Center in February 2013.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News file

She soon learned that implementing her vision would be easier said than done. In May of 2013, Minneapolis police officers shot and killed 22-year-old Terrance Franklin, an African-American man suspected of burglary.  Later that year, two white Minneapolis police officers were accused of making racial slurs while off-duty in Green Bay, Wis.

In an unprecedented move, Harteau released details of the Franklin shooting investigation, which concluded that Franklin wrestled with the officers and wounded two of them after he managed to grab one of their guns. Franklin's family disputes those claims and has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court. 

The officers who killed Franklin would not face criminal charges nor any department discipline. 

Harteau did fire the two officers involved in the Green Bay incident, but that seemed to do little to counter claims of widespread racial bias among the city's police force. A 2015 analysis of arrest data conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union showed that African-Americans and Native Americans were arrested at rates nearly nine times higher than the rate for whites

"I think she understood that the numbers were unsustainable," said Teresa Nelson, interim executive director of the ACLU's Minnesota chapter. She said Harteau was sincere in her desire to address racial disparities, "but maybe wasn't willing to accept as much of the responsibility as I thought the department bared."

After the ACLU report was released, Harteau said other factors, like poverty, contribute to the arrest disparity. She said many people stopped for traffic offenses are ticketed for not having a driver's license. Harteau said license testing sites are outside the city, making access to the test hard for many low-income residents. 

Nelson and others give Harteau credit for starting changes in police culture and training which may pay off in the years to come. Harteau implemented procedural justice training, implicit bias training and expanded training for all officers to handle situations with people experiencing mental health emergencies. 

Minneapolis police also embraced a set of reforms that came out of an Obama administration task force on so-called 21st Century policing. 

"It's fair to say her view of policing was consistent with a lot of the more forward-thinking, progressive thinking police chiefs in the country," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in Washington D.C., who has worked with Harteau since the 1990s. 

Police chief Janee Harteau danced with residents.
Harteau danced with residents at a National Night Out block party in north Minneapolis.
Caroline Yang for MPR News 2015

Harteau's departure before the end of her second term is not unusual compared to other big city police chiefs. 

The average tenure for chiefs in large cities is between three and a half to four and a half years, according to a study by Wexler's group. Wexler said the tenures of police chiefs, even ones like Harteau who've pushed for reforms in police culture and training, can come to an end in wake of a high-profile shooting.   

"Every police chief in this country is one bad car stop away from really losing their legitimacy," he said.

Harteau said she will miss working with her fellow officers and community members but will not miss the pressures of the job, which she said took a toll on her family life. During her time as chief, Harteau's marriage to her longtime partner Holly Keegel ended. 

"My family has been negatively impacted in a variety of ways," said Harteau. "Either I'm not home, or when I'm home, or on vacation, I'm on the phone the entire time."

Harteau said she tried to be a visible and personable chief by using social media to communicate with the public. But that opened her up to attacks which she said were at times vulgar and personal. Harteau remarried in 2016, but chose not to make that public at the time. She's said she's looking forward to some anonymity and time with her family.

She said she's offered advice to acting chief Medaria Arradondo on how to balance his work and family life. Harteau said she told Arradondo to never lose sight of what is most important in life and to be prepared to leave the job if the time comes.

"I am thrilled to see him move this department forward," said Harteau, who picked Arradondo as her assistant chief earlier this year. "When I promoted him," she said, "I actually told him that my goal was that he would become chief."

If his appointment is approved by the council this month, Arradondo will fill out the remainder of Harteau's term, due to expire in January 2019.

Harteau is leaving the department after 30 years of service, but may not be done in law enforcement. She said she's been contacted by recruiters for several major city police departments, including Dallas, but stopped the process there, saying she's not ready to leave Minnesota.

Harteau said she still wants to contribute to the career field she loves so much, although she's not sure yet what form that will take.

Looking back over her career and shortened stint as chief, Harteau can't list all the things she counts as accomplishments. 

"People ask me, what are you the most proud of? But, it's almost too much to really encapsulate. But my goal is, or was from the beginning, when I walked the door is to leave it better than when I came in," said Harteau. "I think I have."

Correction (Aug. 9, 2017): Harteau has been contacted by recruiters for several major city departments but stopped the process there, saying she's not ready to leave Minnesota. An earlier version of this story indicated she had received job offers.

The story has also been updated with her correct age.