A coalition of civil rights groups said Friday that Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau only inflamed matters when she warned that violence would not be tolerated in the event that two officers are not charged in the death of Jamar Clark.
But Harteau stood by her comments and a video the department released Thursday that showed people setting a fire and throwing Molotov cocktails in confrontations with police last fall. In the video, Harteau issued a stern message that protests interfering with public safety — including by blocking streets — would result in arrests.
At a Friday news conference, Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds called Harteau’s remarks disconcerting.
“She had an opportunity as a leader in our city to express words of comfort and healing in the wake of a decision that will have a tremendous impact on our community,” Levy-Pounds said. “Instead, we felt Chief Janeé Harteau’s comments were irresponsible and unfortunate, inciting this notion that the black community is violent. We find that to be completely unacceptable.”
A police spokesman said Friday that Harteau, who recently attended a U.S. Department of Justice conference on officer safety and wellness, stood by her comments and declined to comment on the criticism.
Mayor Betsy Hodges, whose name was also invoked at the City Hall news conference, released a statement saying, “We want to ensure that people are able to exercise their First Amendment rights, and at the same time protect public safety for all — including those who choose to exercise those rights.”
Later in the day, she issued a second statement that addressed the criticism more directly: “I absolutely support the right to peaceful protest in our city. I regret that some of the images in [the video] released yesterday do not reflect that the large majority of the people who protested at the Fourth Precinct last fall did so peacefully. I’ve expressed my opinion to Chief Harteau, and she understands. …
“[Police] will use national best practices in regarding peaceful protest activities. Protecting the right to free speech and peaceful assembly is as much the Police Department’s job as protecting the safety of our residents, businesses, visitors, police officers, and protesters. In Minneapolis, we value First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful protest. As mayor, I intend to honor those values.”
Second Ward Council Member Cam Gordon said Harteau’s intentions may have been good, but he disagreed with her approach.
“I think it was problematic, and I think it wasn’t really helpful what she said,” he said. “I could tell that people who want to lead peaceful protests would be offended.”
Harteau’s remarks reflected police concerns about the potential reaction that could erupt when Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announces whether he will bring charges against officers Dustin Schwarze and Mark Ringgenberg in the November shooting death of Clark, 24.
Freeman said he will announce the decision by the end of the month. He said last week that he would not take the case to a grand jury.
After Clark was killed as he struggled with police on the North Side, weeks of demonstrations occurred outside the department’s Fourth Precinct.
They mirrored other anti-police brutality protests around the country, including in Ferguson, Mo., as a new generation of black activists, many associated with Black Lives Matter, took to the streets. Another protest is planned for noon Saturday at the Hennepin County Government Center.
Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza said Friday he believes Harteau struck the wrong balance in her statement. He said it should have focused more intently on preserving the rights of demonstrators and emphasized “the tortured history of racism” in America.
“You have to exhaust every possibility for a peaceful outcome, and you have to tell them that you understand that it is a racist society, and they have to believe it,” Bouza said.
The Rev. David Couper, a former longtime Twin Cities police officer, said he faced similarly racially charged demonstrations as the police chief in Madison, Wis. Each time, said Couper, who has published a book on the adversarial history between police and minority communities, he relied on relationships he’d forged with community leaders.
“It’s probably something I wouldn’t have said,” Couper said of Harteau’s comments. “The important thing is to have contact with the leaders of those groups … to establish a relationship so that they don’t want to throw Molotov cocktails and bricks at you. It shouldn’t come to that level.”
But Ron Edwards, a longtime Minneapolis civil rights activist, defended Harteau’s approach. He said that during the fall demonstrations, she and Hodges were heavily criticized for “being soft against the protesters.”
“The chief is a quick learner. She knows she cannot satisfy everybody all the time, but you have to satisfy the demand for the safety of the citizens of the city,” he said. “She has made a decision that she will use the authority vested in her. She will not tolerate violence.”
Most of the speakers at Friday’s news conference underscored what they believe is a hypocritical standard by police, who lecture the community about the need to avoid violence while failing to take decisive action on police brutality and misconduct. They noted that no officer was charged when the Metro Gang Strike Force was dismantled in 2009, even though the city of Minneapolis has paid out millions to individuals who accused police in lawsuits of brutality and misconduct.
Pastor Brian Herron of Zion Baptist Church said protests will continue until things change.
“There is no victory here; there’s no victory if the police are charged or not charged because a young man’s life is gone,” he said. There’s no victory here because the disparities are looming large over this city.”