Minneapolis residents can weigh in on what they expect from the man nominated to be the next head of the city’s police force, Brian O’Hara. He faces a public hearing Wednesday afternoon in Minneapolis City Council chambers.
MPR News traveled to Newark this month to gather a variety of perspectives on O’Hara’s 20 years of service in public safety in that city.
Like Minneapolis, Newark police actions have sparked unrest
To understand Newark at this moment, it is important to look back, said longtime social justice activist Larry Hamm, who founded People’s Organization for Progress in 1982.
“We interface with the police a lot because we have a lot of demonstrations,” Hamm explained.
From a hotel lobby in downtown Newark, Hamm reflected on decades of examples of Black residents mistreated by Newark police. Hamm called the 1967 Riots, days of unrest brought on by the police beating Black cab driver John Smith, one of the most “cataclysmic” events in the city’s history.
More than four decades passed before the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating patterns of alleged abuses by the Newark Police Department and by 2016, the city entered into a consent decree with the DOJ. The consent decree required the department to undergo a series of 16 reforms and train officers on new policies across many areas including use of force, body-worn cameras and community policing.
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Around that time, Hamm began to see more of then-Captain Brian O’Hara at community meetings.
“He would talk to us, he would talk to the community, he seemed to be interested in reform,” Hamm said. “He wasn’t like one of these hardliners, you know — been with the department 40 years, don’t want to change anything — he seemed to see the need for change.”
O’Hara oversaw the implementation of the consent decree over the course of five years, engaging with a variety of stakeholders in Newark’s public safety, from community groups, to members of law enforcement and social justice organizations.
Changing police culture
From his home in New Jersey, 43-year-old O’Hara said he feels his life’s work has prepared him for this moment.
“I do believe things happen for a reason,” O’Hara said.
The Justice Department launched an investigation into possible patterns of discrimination and excessive force among the Minneapolis Police Department following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Minneapolis is still waiting to learn of the DOJ’s findings and possibly negotiate its own consent decree.
O’Hara’s experience with the Newark consent decree is part of the reason Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey picked O’Hara as his nominee to become the next Minneapolis police chief.
O’Hara said there is no question that the Newark Police Department has changed for the better since the consent decree process began under his leadership.
“It’s not a question of whether there has been significant cultural change that has been made, change has been made, it’s just how much. I think that’s the only thing that is kind of open for debate,” O’Hara said.
O’Hara continued his work on the Newark consent decree as he rose through the ranks to become the public safety director of Newark and eventually a deputy mayor overseeing policing strategy.
Hamm pointed out that while he feels police and community interactions at protests have been less adversarial in the years since the consent decree took effect, that does not always translate to day-to-day interactions between residents and police officers. Hamm said even if a police leader is perceived as well-liked, that is not enough to reform a department.
“It is really the rank-and-file officers that create the perception in peoples’ minds about the police,” Hamm said.
Community engagement key to the job
More than two years after George Floyd’s murder, Rick Robinson still stands in awe of the 700-pound bronze statue of Floyd sitting on a bench on the steps of Newark City Hall.
“There is going to be a day one day where everyone can be treated fairly, regarding law enforcement,” Robinson said as his gaze rested on the statue.
Robinson serves as a leader of New Jersey’s NAACP state chapter and chair of the Newark Civilian Complaint Review Board. Robinson said he has not always gotten along with law enforcement leaders over the decades, but O’Hara’s leadership was “one in a million.”
“He is able to, I would say, engage all parties and that is something you really need in Minneapolis,” Robinson said.
Robinson said O’Hara’s ability to listen to community members and knowledge about the intricacies of a consent decree will be valuable if he becomes Minneapolis police chief.
“He’s going to be successful within time, not overnight,” Robinson said. “Within time, you’re going to have a situation where you are going to measure that change and it’s going to become greater and greater and greater.”
Newark is ‘not there yet’
An independent monitoring team is tasked with auditing changes from the consent decree to ensure Newark is in compliance with its different components and the changes are actually happening. The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice is part of the team. Yannick Wood is director of the criminal justice reform program. He compares the consent decree to medicine.
“Say someone is sick and they went to the doctor and got a course of medication,” Wood said. “They get a little bit of the medication, they feel a little bit better and then they want to stop doing the medication, I think that’s kind of where we are in the consent decree.”
Violent crimes and homicides have fallen since 2013, but some crimes ticked up slightly at times during 2021 and this year.
The consent decree has been extended for at least another year, partly because the police department has not passed some audits and the pandemic delayed some of the work.
“We’re not there yet,” Wood said. “We need to remain vigilant and continue the process until its completion so that way we can make sure we truly transform policing in Newark.”
Wood explained public opinion surveys showed that in 2018, 83 percent of responding Newark residents reported never having a positive interaction with Newark police officers; that fell nearly 50 percent to 37 percent by the 2020 survey.
In 2020, half the respondents still felt Newark police treated Black individuals worse than others.
O’Hara will come to a larger, whiter city and police force
Newark is a city of more than 300,000 people with a majority of residents and officers of color. Minneapolis has a population of more than 400,000 people with majority white residents and officers. O’Hara said he feels that residents of all backgrounds mostly want to be heard.
“In general, I think the concerns of community are universal,” O’Hara said. “My experience is Minneapolis is a very diverse city, it’s not uniform — there are lots of different communities here.”
Newark Pastor Ronald Slaughter worked alongside O’Hara. Although he is a civilian, Slaughter also works for the Newark police as the deputy public safety director of community relations.
Slaughter often offered his church, Saint James AME, as a place for O’Hara to meet with concerned residents and faith leaders from across religions. Sitting in the pews, Slaughter listed O’Hara’s strengths.
“Thorough, compassionate, concerned, can be fierce when he has to be to get the assignment done,” Slaughter said. “Family man, dedicated, hard worker.”
Slaughter believes O’Hara can lead effectively as Minneapolis police chief if he has the support of those who he reports to — which would be newly appointed Minneapolis Commissioner of Community Safety Cedric Alexander and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.
“There has to be freedom to do the work and to do the work in a nontraditional way,” Slaughter said.
O’Hara said he is eager to work with Minneapolis city leaders and that officers he has spoken with seem to welcome his leadership as someone coming from outside the department. He hopes changes will lead to preventing and solving more crimes while building stronger relationships with residents.
“When you have a culture of a police department that is sort of antithetical to the values the community wants and what may actually have been written down in policy, culture will trump policy that is written any day of the week,” O’Hara said.
Peace and progress
After George Floyd’s murder, the protests against police brutality in Newark were among the largest in the city’s history, and they were peaceful. Newark police also didn’t fire a single shot in all of 2020. Mayor Ras Baraka remembers it as an encouraging show of progress to many Newarkers after some difficult decades in policing.
Baraka was O’Hara’s boss. Baraka took office at the early stages of the consent decree process, which he said has cost taxpayers between $2 million and $3 million per year.
“The positive side of it is you get the support to do the things that you need to do, you get the kind of data that’s necessary to back up what you are trying to do in the city,” Baraka said. “If you really want to reform the police department, it gives you the context to do it.”
Baraka was so pleased with O’Hara’s work overseeing the consent decree, he made O’Hara director of public safety in 2021.
“He knows exactly what constitutional policing looks like, what is needed, what the U.S. government is looking for,” Baraka said. “That kind of knowledge, a lot of police officers just don't have that, because they never had those relationships and they weren't immersed in that.”
This summer, Baraka made O’Hara a deputy mayor of strategic initiatives for police services, an appointment that caught some people by surprise.
“I wanted to create a position, a deputy mayor position, that answered only to me and not to everybody else who was getting in the way of him doing what he needed to do in terms of the community policing work that we do,” Baraka said.
Baraka added that while reform made some members of the “police brass” at all levels uncomfortable, O’Hara was able to balance reducing violent crime with implementing the practice of constitutional policing throughout his 20 years with the department.
O'Hara, whose wife is a Newark police lieutenant, said he is confident it is time for him to move on from Newark and help make a lasting difference in Minneapolis.
“Everything in my professional life, everything in my personal life, has prepared me to deal with the situation the city and police department is experiencing,” O’Hara said. “This is incredibly meaningful work for me.”
The city of Newark denied a request from MPR News for O’Hara’s personnel and disciplinary records. Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey has said he hopes to have the full city council vote on O’Hara’s nomination early next month.
Brian O’Hara will join Cathy Wurzer Thursday on Minnesota Now at noon. You can submit questions here, and we may use it on the air.