Thurman Blevins’ body still lay in the north Minneapolis alley where he was shot and killed by police last weekend when Chief Medaria Arradondo arrived on the scene.
A crowd of onlookers surrounded the chief, filming him with their phones as they demanded an explanation.
“This don’t make no sense!” shouted onlooker James Lark, who said he saw the police chase Blevins. “I heard nine shots!”
Arradondo listened and nodded, explaining that he likely wouldn’t know what happened for some time. He urged anyone who saw anything to speak with investigators, before ducking back under the police tape.
Just over 10 months after being sworn in as chief, Arradondo is facing the first serious challenge of his leadership skills as he responds to a series of highly charged controversies — some that could threaten his public support as potential reappointment approaches this fall. In the span of a month, his department has come under mounting criticism, from undercover marijuana stings that resulted in the arrests mostly of black people, to allegations that officers were urging paramedics to sedate agitated people with ketamine. It culminated with the June 23 shooting of Blevins, a black man who police say was armed. City officials say the shooting was captured on body cameras and that the footage will be released once all witnesses are interviewed.
Arradondo, who is the city’s first black police chief, said he understands that every episode is clouded by a constellation of racial and political concerns.
People expect immediate solutions, he said.
“We don’t have the luxury, and I certainly don’t have the luxury as chief, to press the pause button,” he said.
As with his predecessor, Janeé Harteau — who was ousted after the police shooting death of Justine Damond last year — the disturbances offered a jarring reminder that whatever support a chief builds over the years can evaporate with one controversial police incident.
Since taking over, Arradondo has projected the image of a charismatic leader who could restore police credibility and ease racial tensions such as those seen in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and Baltimore.
The vocal but peaceful protests that sprouted in the wake of the city’s latest police killing were a sharp reminder of the racial division some say has plagued the city for decades.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, a civil rights attorney and activist, said she fully appreciated the symbolism of the city’s police chief mingling with protesters after a critical incident, but she said his words must be backed by action.
“The visual helps, but we’re asking for much more than that, because lives are on the line as long as these problems exist within the MPD,” she said. “I think that his heart is in the right place, but he’s going to need a lot more support from city leaders.”
Michelle Gross, of the watchdog group Communities United Against Police Brutality, said that she was “disgusted” by what she called the lack of follow-through on some of the department’s promises to be more transparent.
“I think he’s very good in terms of being public-facing, and he doesn’t shy away from tough subjects, I’ll give him credit for that,” Gross said. “At the same time, we need to see some changes, and I see him moving pretty slow in that direction.”
Others wondered whether Arradondo had properly addressed the underlying problems of the marijuana stings and the ketamine report.
“It’s the system, and it almost runs itself,” said human rights activist Mel Reeves, saying that even a well-intentioned leader’s attempts at reform can be derailed by the police union and “others who are going to keep the status quo.”
Arradondo touted his record of forging strong relationships and dismissed the criticism that he was playing politics while ignoring pressing issues within the department, saying that to institute cultural change “you have to have allies both within that organization and outside.”
“I have to have the relationships with people,” he said, adding that it doesn’t mean he needs to be popular. “We can agree to disagree, but at the end of the day I know that it’s people that are going to [make] change.”
‘Hurt people hurt people’
The hostility in the wake of the Blevins shooting also ensnared Mayor Jacob Frey — also in his first year on the job — who was confronted by some of Blevins’ relatives and friends at a City Council meeting earlier this week.
Vanessa Anderson, the mother of Blevins’ two oldest children, said the body-camera footage can only be useful if it shows what led to him running in the first place.
“What my concern is, even for my children, is the approach. Did you de-escalate something or did you escalate? That’s my number one thing,” Anderson said. “The end result, whether or not he had a gun in that alley, I don’t care about that. I want to know why the police took it upon themselves to jump out of the car with a little baby and a woman there, so aggressively, approaching them in a community with people outside with their pistols drawn.”
Frey reiterated that the footage’s release would come after the BCA completed its interviews of key witnesses, without offering a timeline.
Arradondo said that the mayor had consulted him before making his decision to release the video, but said that if it were his call, he would not release it until after the BCA’s investigation was complete.
“At the end of the day, I understand his rationales — he articulated that — and I articulated mine,” he said, adding that the department had already started preparing for any potential fallout.
Ron Edwards, an activist and longtime department observer, praised Arradondo’s willingness to acknowledge protesters’ concerns and take action.
“In the last 50 years, ain’t no way in the world that anybody would’ve come out that way that that chief did,” Edwards said of Arradondo’s presence at the scene of Blevins’ death. “Because there were some that night, they were trying to provoke him, they had him under attack, trying to get him to respond in the negative, and he responded in the affirmative.”
Mary Moriarty, the county’s chief public defender, said that in his short time as chief, Arradondo was responsive to her office’s concerns about the undercover marijuana stings that some felt unfairly targeted blacks, moving quickly to end the practice.
“Certainly as an institution, the MPD has a long way to go to earn the trust of some in our community, there’s no doubt about that, but since he’s been chief, I’ve seen a dramatic change in transparency, accountability and just his presence — I mean, he shows up to things,” she said of Arradondo, who often gives out his cellphone number at community events and insists on people calling him by his nickname, “Rondo.”
“I do think that Arradondo has stood out as someone who doesn’t immediately get defensive, but truly appears to try to listen and learn and figure out what could be done better,” said Michael Friedman, executive director of the Legal Rights Center. “Whether he will be able to succeed in that and try to make the community feel as though something will change is still to be determined.”
Arradondo said that some of the backlash against the department was rooted in past community trauma.
Officers are also psychologically affected by their jobs, he said, which many policing agencies have only recently started to recognize.
“Hurt people hurt people,” he said. “I wish there was, but there’s never going to be a time where we won’t experience trauma in our communities.”
He also points to a list of challenges facing the city that are beyond the police’s control but contribute to violence, including more funding for affordable housing and connecting those living with mental illness with services.
“When other forms of government have abandoned their responsibilities to our community,” he said, “the Minneapolis Police Department has been kind of forced to be the solver of all of those social ills.”
Arradondo said he remained hopeful that the city was on the mend.
“How do you continue to coexist when others believe you are the cause of that trauma?” he asked, rhetorically. “That is what I’m dedicated to finding ways and building alliances for us to navigate through that.”
Staff writers Adam Belz and Andy Mannix contributed to this report.