While trumpeting north Minneapolis’ recent double-digit percent drop in violent crime, police Inspector Aaron Biard stopped himself in midsentence from making the same mistake that has landed many an official in hot water.
“Don’t ever tell North Siders that crime is low,” he said.
It was just one of many lessons Biard, who began his career helping to keep troubled kids off the streets and out of jail, picked up from former Fourth Precinct Inspector Mike Kjos.
Now that the job is his, Biard will have his hands full keeping crime in check while regaining the trust of residents wary of heavy policing, and motivating street cops who at times have felt abandoned by the department’s brass.
Biard says he learned from both his predecessors — Kjos and Michael Friestleben — that the position is all about building relationships.
“That community policing, community partnership, trying to get those relationships to develop for police to be legitimate,” Biard, 46, said in an interview. “I’m all in favor of that, and frankly I don’t see myself having to be separated from their philosophies.”
Community leaders hope his appointment will bring some stability to a position that is considered one of the department’s toughest.
When then-Chief Janeé Harteau tried to give the job to former police union President John Delmonico this summer following Kjos’ promotion to deputy chief, she was overruled by Mayor Betsy Hodges, who contended that the inspectorship called for someone who could “build trust and transform relationships between police and community.”
In June, the former chief named Biard after some lobbying by his former boss, Kjos.
Biard, a married father of four, was raised in a blue-collar household on the city’s South Side — not too far from Washburn High School, where he graduated in 1989 — though his family bounced around a lot, including a short stay in north Minneapolis. Money was always tight, so he enlisted in the National Guard to help pay for college.
After joining the Minneapolis Police Department in 1995, his first few years were spent walking the beat in the Phillips neighborhood, then a hotbed of violent crime.
“The very first squad car I sat in was a Fourth Precinct squad, though,” he said, pointing out that in those days the precinct stretched across downtown. “And it was considered a slow car for the precinct.”
His early career included stopovers in units like traffic, sex crimes and the SWAT team, where he served as the executive officer. In 2008, he received the Chief’s Award of Merit.
Before making lieutenant, Biard was put in charge of the department’s Police Athletics League program, a nonprofit that aims to help at-risk youths by forging good relations between them and law enforcement. Biard says he came away with a changed view of policing, one that went beyond running from call to call.
“Sometimes officers don’t get that opportunity; they’re always just out dealing with emergency calls, dealing with crime, dealing with criminals, and I felt fortunate that I had that experience,” he said. “It shattered that perception that I had that it always had to be adversarial.”
Regaining public trust
His embrace of the community policing philosophy comes as no surprise to those who know him.
Council President Barb Johnson said Biard has a quality she expects of any inspector on the North Side: He’s “responsive.”
“When I express something that is of concern, he will try to get somebody to work on it,” she said, echoing the sentiments of business owners along W. Broadway Avenue, the North Side’s commercial artery. A recent afternoon found him strolling past the food trucks that sometimes line Broadway during the summer, greeting locals with a nod of the head and chatting up a vendor selling jerk chicken.
City Council Member Blong Yang said that the new inspector must be willing to take on the challenges of policing the North Side, rebuilding trust eroded over years as a result of police missteps and misunderstandings. Above all, Biard has to put the community first, Yang said.
“Those things make it difficult, and at some point people get hardened or people kind of go on autopilot,” said Yang, who heads the public safety committee.
Regaining public trust will be a delicate job, said Cathy Spann, who as executive director of the Jordan Area Community Council has worked closely with past inspectors.
“Leadership comes from the top down and I expect that he leads by example,” Spann said. “I hope that one of his priorities is that he’s willing to address race relations.”
The challenges facing him are many.
In some ways, the precinct is still dealing with the fallout of the November 2015 fatal shooting by police of Jamar Clark. A federal report found that rank-and-file officers often felt unsupported during the ensuing protests, leading to a monthslong work slowdown.
And despite a 14 percent drop in violent crime compared to this time last year, public safety remains a persistent issue. Property crimes like burglary and arson have risen. Meanwhile, residents have complained about slow response times, especially on low-priority calls.
But Biard said times are changing.
Over the years, the department’s priorities have evolved from the “broken windows” style of policing that swept the country in the 1980s and 1990s, he said.
“We have shifted, I think, institutionally … where it was just, stop everybody for everything and make a ton of misdemeanor arrests and that will take care of the felony arrests,” Biard said. “Although that may have an impact on crime, it alienates the community and causes more distrust than trust.”
Crime-fighting remains the department’s focus, he said. But police also are becoming more attuned to the impact of unemployment, poverty and other social factors that affect violent crime rates, Biard said.
“We’re not designed to solve those problems,” he said, “but we need to recognize, empathize and understand that that’s there.”