Years of mistrust have undermined relations between Minneapolis police and black community: ex-chief

The Minneapolis police department's poor relations with the city's black community are a product of years of mistrust, a former police chief says. But others say the problems run deeper and are more a result of systemic racism that runs rampant on the force.

'Clearly what we did wasn't enough,' says Janee Harteau of efforts to improve relations

Veteran police officer Janee Harteau was appointed Minneapolis police chief in December 2012 amid hope she could help mend the force's poor relations with the city's black community.  (Elizabeth Flores/StarTribune/The Associated Press)

When veteran police officer Janee Harteau was appointed Minneapolis police chief in December 2012, there was hope that the noted reformer could help mend the force's historically poor relations with the city's black community. 

But when asked Tuesday whether or not she failed in that task — given the eruption of outrage, protest and violence in the city over the death of George Floyd — she chose her words carefully.

"I would say that clearly what we did wasn't enough," Harteau, the first woman to hold the position, said in a phone interview with CBC News. 

The comments from Harteau, who resigned as chief in 2017, come as protests and scattered violence has rocked Minneapolis and other cities across the U.S. following the death of Floyd, who had been arrested on May 25 by police on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. 

Floyd was on the ground face down and handcuffed while one officer held his knee on his neck for more than eight minutes, according to a criminal complaint. At one point, Floyd stopped breathing.

Derek Chauvin, 44, who has been fired from the force, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

'How could that happen?'

"For me to see it be done at the hands of the Minneapolis police department," Harteau said, "how could that happen? Knowing everything we did?"

Law enforcement officers amass along Lake Street near Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis as fires burn after a night of unrest and protests on May 29. (David Joles/Star Tribune via AP)

She believes she made progress with some initiatives, including implicit bias training, along with increasing the number of officers on foot so that they could connect better with the community.

However, she said, "when you look back, it makes you question everything you knew. But what I know for certain then is I was doing all of the things that everybody was saying needed to be done."

She said that the current tensions are an "accumulation of years of issues, years of mistrust."

"Then things seem to get better. We start making progress. And then each time it seems an incident becomes more egregious," said Harteau, who is currently the president & CEO of Vitals Aware Services, which offers an app of critical information for first responders.

"I had my share of controversial incidents, said Harteau, who was forced out as chief after a 40-year-old dual citizen of the U.S. and Australia was shot to death by a member of her police force.

"And the common denominator is they are all tragic."

Harteau puts much of the blame for tensions between the police department and the black community with the current police union president Bob Kroll, whose resignation she called for after he described Floyd as someone who had a "violent criminal history" and said that the demonstrations were part of a "terrorist movement."

Systemic racism blamed 

However, others believe the problems run deeper and that this is more than a series of incidents involving only some members of the police force.

"[People need] to think about and talk about this not as individual recent incidents, but as systemic racism in the way that the system itself is set up and the way the culture of the department is set up," said Tony Williams, a community activist in the city. 

When the 3rd Precinct was torched last week, the same precinct where the four officers involved in the detainment of Floyd were stationed, the organized protests there were "based on generations of harm," said Mike Griffin, a community organizer in Minneapolis.

WATCH | A community organizer in Minneapolis speaks about the anger directed toward the city's police force: 

Protesters and Police Clash in Minnesota

3 years ago
Duration 6:15
CBC News Network's Michael Serapio speaks with Mike Griffin, a community organizer in Minneapolis.

"The police precinct specifically is a symbol of white supremacy. And that is where a lot of the protests and anger was directed toward."

Indeed, relations have so soured that some have given up on reform. 

Jason Sole, a criminal justice educator and past president of the Minneapolis NAACP, told CBC News that policymakers need to focus on shrinking the current police department and eventually abolish it.

'We have people in the community who are amazing folks. They are therapists, social workers, and they're also licensed to carry," he said. "We trust them a little bit more than we trust law enforcement."

Sole said he's "been choked by police, pepper-sprayed. I've been through the worst things of law enforcement in my life."

Demonstrators protest county attorney Mike Freeman's decision that no charges will be filed against two Minneapolis police officers in the fatal shooting in November 2015 of a black man, Jamar Clark. (Jim Mone/The Associated Press)

Williams, who contributed to MPD150, a report into the 150-year history of the Minneapolis Police Department, has also called for the dismantling of the force. He said despite the number of reformist politicians and police chiefs throughout the years, including the current police chief who is a member of the black community, there have been no significant changes in how the black community is treated. 

Police 'impervious to reform'

"It's very clear that the police are set up in such a way that makes them impervious to reform," he said.

"If we have the best reformist chiefs possible in these positions and we have these politicians who are deeply dedicated to this, which is what they've been telling us for nearly 100 years or longer, then it's clear that it doesn't work."

Keith A. Mayes, a professor of African American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota, said with the city home to some of the worst disparities within the black community in the U.S., including income levels, income gaps, educational gaps, rates of incarceration and rates of home ownership, the situation "was just a powder keg waiting to explode. 

"So, the police abuse on top of the massive inequality in the state gave rise to what you see today taking place in the streets."

David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minn., said while the relationship between the black community and police in Minneapolis has been poor for decades, he believes it became worse in the 1990s and 2000s as the black community grew from about 10 per cent of the city's population to 20 per cent.

Schultz said when he used to teach a class in the early 2000s about police criminal and civil liability, he would tell his students that. "Minneapolis was like a living laboratory in everything you can do wrong."

WATCH | Protesters set the Minneapolis Police Department's 3rd Precinct on fire:

Minneapolis police driven from 3rd Precinct as protesters set station on fire

3 years ago
Duration 0:49
The city endured a third night of protests and violence after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died in police custody.

"I would bring in these press clippings of major police abuses. The city would settle for six and seven figures, et cetera, et cetera. And so you just got this long train of the police abusing its authority. And nothing's changing."

Not taking action against police abuse

As well, Schultz believes some of the anger stems from the fact that when police abuses do occur, the county attorney's office has a history of not taking action as people would like to see it take.

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor was convicted of third-degree murder and manslaughter in the July 2017 death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old dual citizen of the U.S. and Australia. (Leila Navidi/Star Tribune/The Associated Press)

Harteau's own tenure was marked by two high-profile police shootings. In 2015, Jamar Clark, a black man, was shot and killed during a scuffle with two white Minneapolis police officers. Two years later, U.S. and Australian  dual citizen Justine Damond, a white woman, was shot and killed by Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, a black man. 

"The police officer who kills Jamal Clark is not prosecuted for it. The county attorney moves rapidly to prosecute the black officer who kills Justine Damond," said Schultz.

"So, think about those images. Those are not good images."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press