Mayor Betsy Hodges said she decided she wanted a new police chief long before Justine Ruszczyk Damond was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer in July.
But it was the death of the unarmed Australia native, which evolved into an international incident in former Chief Janeé Harteau’s absence, that prompted enough City Council support to force the change atop the Minneapolis Police Department.
“I can’t unilaterally fire a police chief, there’s no way I could do this,” Hodges said in an interview Tuesday. “Until Justine Damond was shot, a majority of council members didn’t agree with me.”
The mayor and former chief recently agreed to interviews revealing new details about how their working relationship deteriorated and ultimately ended. Hodges said she had lost confidence in Harteau months before Damond’s death after a series of conflicts, including a disagreement over leadership at the Fourth Precinct. At the time of the shooting, Harteau said she was frustrated to be operating under strict rules requiring her to notify the mayor before she sent an all-department e-mail or spoke to the media.
In the days after Officer Mohamed Noor shot Damond, the chief and mayor never spoke on the phone. The only communication between them before Harteau returned from a previously planned trip to Colorado was a text message exchange July 17.
Harteau wrote Hodges to update her on what the department was doing, said she’d be back in Minneapolis July 19, and added, “if you need something directly from me, let me know.”
Hodges responded immediately that then-Assistant Chief Medaria Arradondo — who was communicating regularly with both of them — was capably handling the situation. “Thanks Chief,” Hodges wrote. “Rondo has been doing a great job and I feel like we are well covered.”
Harteau, who produced the text messages at a reporter’s request, was pushed to resign six days after Damond’s death under pressure from the City Council, with Hodges saying she had “lost confidence” in Harteau to lead the department.
“Thirty-one years in this city and people think I should have been removed because I came back Wednesday and I should have come back Monday. That’s hard to swallow,” Harteau said. “It’d be different if the mayor had asked me to come back and I’d said, ‘It’s fine, Rondo’s got it covered.’ ”
A federal report spotlighted “strain” in the mayor and chief’s relationship after the shooting of Jamar Clark, and Hodges — who said Tuesday Harteau was “lionhearted” in working to reform the police department — lost confidence in the former chief gradually. The “culminating event” was in April, the mayor said, when Harteau appointed Lt. John Delmonico, a controversial former police union president, to lead north Minneapolis’ Fourth Precinct. Hodges rescinded the appointment in a high-profile blowup.
“I had already concluded that we needed new leadership when Chief Harteau appointed John Delmonico to be inspector of the Fourth Precinct, and avoided consulting with me,” Hodges said.
That Harteau was out of town in the aftermath of the Damond shooting — a trip Hodges knew about well in advance — was never the reason Harteau had to resign, Hodges said.
“Others made an issue of that, I did not,” the mayor said.
Harteau offered her account of the days after the shooting last week, freed from a nondisparagement clause that was initially part of her separation agreement with the city.
She said she flew to Colorado on July 15, several hours before the shooting in Minneapolis, and drove into the mountains. Arradondo called early the next morning. He told her a police officer had shot a civilian, though he knew little else, Harteau said. She ordered Arradondo to alert the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and ask for an expedited investigation.
That day, Harteau hiked nine miles in the mountains and kept in sporadic contact — cell service was unreliable — with her police department staff, including Arradondo. The day was “chaotic,” she said.
Harteau has said repeatedly she was in contact with Arradondo but did not understand the gravity of the situation.
A Star Tribune report the day after the shooting said Damond was unarmed and an officer shot her from inside the vehicle, citing anonymous sources. But Harteau said, “for me, given this was a BCA investigation, there were just a lot of unknowns.”
When the BCA said July 18 that Noor shot from the squad car and Damond was unarmed, Harteau said she realized the full weight of the situation, because Noor’s partner, Officer Matthew Harrity, offered no defense of the shooting. “It was clear to me that he didn’t know why this happened,” Harteau said.
She flew back to Minneapolis on July 19 as planned. She said she regrets leaving town at all, but not how quickly she returned.
Hodges said she meant it when she told Harteau the city was “well covered.”
Memo outlines rules
The fallout from the Delmonico appointment led Hodges to put in writing a set of expectations for Harteau, dated May 2.
The memo required Harteau to tell the mayor before she sent any all-department e-mails, attended department-sponsored events, planned news conferences or communicated with reporters. It also made explicit rules about notifying the mayor before any major personnel decisions and not talking about those decisions to council members before the mayor.
Harteau said the rules delayed her public response to the shooting.
“We were getting media requests and we couldn’t commit to anybody because I had to get approval from her,” Harteau said. “What am I supposed to tell people? I’m waiting for the mayor to give her blessing? So they just thought I was dragging my feet.”
Meanwhile, the morning of July 21, Council Member Linea Palmisano called for “fundamental changes in our police department from top to bottom,” several council members echoed her call, and pressure built for Harteau to resign.
Other council members said Tuesday they were ready for a new police chief well before the Damond shooting. “I was mostly concerned because it didn’t seem like she had a good healthy relationship with the mayor,” Council Member Cam Gordon said, pointing to the Fourth Precinct protests and Delmonico appointment.
Council Member Andrew Johnson said he’d been concerned the chief wasn’t responsive enough to elected officials for a while.
“I had issues going back months before that,” Johnson said. “We were looking for a change in leadership.”
Hodges said private conversations through the week indicated to her that sentiment on the City Council — a majority of which needs to approve the firing of a chief — was trending against Harteau. The public calls for change gave her the opening to do what she’d wanted to do for nearly three months.
Palmisano said Tuesday that Harteau’s absence through the week and silence were major factors in her frustration. The fact that Hodges never demanded Harteau return and that the two were not in direct contact changes her view of the situation.
“Everything I was led to believe was that the chief was completely out of touch,” Palmisano said. “I still think we need top-to-bottom changes in the Police Department, but would I have thought that was grounds for immediate removal? I don’t know.”
E-mails obtained by the Star Tribune show Harteau was approached by recruiters about police chief jobs in other cities. She said she had always planned to stay at least through the Super Bowl in 2018.
She figured Arradondo, who is now the police chief, would be her successor, and was glad of that. “I thought it would just be later,” Harteau said.