Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader was only on the job for a few months when he waded into the contentious debate over the future of the city's Police Department after he argued in a newspaper opinion piece that officers' unwillingness to "take ownership of the culture they have created" posed a roadblock to reform.
In the Feb. 8 op-ed in the Star Tribune, Rowader wrote that he was spurred to take the city attorney job after the death of George Floyd in police custody last May, leaving an "extremely well-paid corporate gig" with Target.
"I was angry. I was scared. I was also eager to do something, anything, to help fix this problem that has vexed our city for longer than my wife and I have lived here," he wrote in the opinion piece. "Minneapolis police have unfortunately practiced inequitable policing based on the color of one's skin for too long — decades at least. It has to stop, it has to change — now, today, tomorrow and for good."
He also called on officers still with the department "to join us in wanting to bring about this change."
But the piece, written in response to an earlier op-ed from a retiring police lieutenant, rankled critics both inside MPD and out, who saw it as inappropriate coming from someone whose office works with police in charging low-level misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases, and regularly defends officers in lawsuits. Others wondered whether his words might turn off officers who wanted to see changes in the department, but felt under attack.
Attorney Fred Bruno said that Rowader's comments could put his office in the awkward legal position of defending officers whose actions he second-guessed publicly.
"I would take the position that Mr. Rowader has disqualified himself, and perhaps all attorneys under him, from representing city employees, having publicly trumpeted his antipathy toward his own clients," Bruno, who regularly represents officers, said in a statement. "This is, at a minimum, the appearance of impropriety; at maximum, it is a conflict of interest requiring the city to bring in outside counsel, at great expense to taxpayers, to do the job correctly and dispassionately."
It's not the first time that Rowader has publicly called out what he saw as a pattern of police mistreatment of people of color. In 2016, Rowader, who is a white Puerto Rican, blasted the department after being pulled over at gunpoint because his SUV matched the description of one involved in a shooting. He took to Facebook to question whether officers would have reacted as aggressively if the stop had happened in a white neighborhood.
"All of us who live outside of the poverty, inequity — and crime — in the heart of north Minneapolis should realize that life is very, very different in a very meaningful way for the everyday, law-abiding citizen there in north Minneapolis," he wrote on Facebook.
The episode caused a stir inside the department and the officers involved were verbally reprimanded after Rowader complained, drawing a rebuke from the police union which argued that the officers were simply doing their jobs.
When reached via e-mail on Thursday, Rowader said that he will "continue to vigorously defend the City's interests whenever needed," but otherwise declined to comment.
His latest remarks come at a turbulent time for the MPD since the in-custody death of George Floyd last May, which triggered a state investigation and prompted calls for the department's downsizing, or even disbandment.
Minneapolis could serve as a test case for how cities might reimagine public safety by prioritizing mental health care and drug treatment to prevent crime. One charter amendment would replace the MPD with a new Department of Public Safety and eliminate the requirement to maintain a minimum number of officers based on the city's population, while another community-led effort would create a new entity that would take a "comprehensive public health approach to safety."
Both proposals could go before city voters this fall. Former Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty said that Rowader hasn't publicly outlined his priorities, so it's too soon to say whether he belongs to a recent wave of more progressive prosecutors who've taken office in cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia, promising to tackle racial bias in the criminal justice system, charge police who misbehave and make other changes. He can play a role in holding police accountable by instructing his attorneys, who regularly review police body camera footage while prepping their cases, to flag bad behavior, she said.
"They are in a unique position to first of all point out to police leadership, 'Hey this isn't OK,' but also to say, 'We are not going to charge cases if we continue to see this particular behavior,' " Moriarty said. "I think we need to stop looking at this as just a police problem or law enforcement problem, because we're all part of a system that's allowed this to go on for decades."
Rowader (pronounced ROWW-der), 56, started as city attorney in August, taking over for Susan Segal, who left to become a judge on the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
Before taking the position, he spent 26 years at Target, most recently as its vice president and general counsel for employee and labor relations. He also worked for a private law firm and for the National Labor Relations Board.
Joe Nuñez, who worked as an attorney for Target before leaving to become a partner at Vantage Law Group, said that colleagues thought of Rowader as a strong leader, but he also had the self-awareness to recognize when he needed help from his subordinates.
Justin Terrell, executive director of the Minnesota Justice Research Center — on whose board Rowader serves — got to know Rowader during the legislative battle over "Ban the Box," a 2013 bill that eliminated a criminal-history box on most private job applications.
Rowader didn't shy away from uncomfortable topics, Terrell said, recalling one community meeting in which residents grilled Rowader about Target's commitment to "Ban the Box." Rowader, he recalled, took it in stride, and showed a clear willingness to hear the community's concerns. Still, he said that he saw how some people might question Rowader's ability to run the city attorney's office, given his background in corporate law.
"I think people's skepticism of him and his background is legitimate — I think people should pay attention to his outcomes and hold him accountable to that," he said.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany