Medaria Arradondo’s first lesson in what it takes to be a black man in law enforcement came nearly 30 years ago, when the police chief of a mostly white town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula pulled him into his office.
“I just want you to know that when you go out there, people are going to kind of look at you a little bit differently,” Arradondo said, recalling the stumbling conversation.
Even then, Arradondo, who was starting a job as a campus police officer at a local college, understood what he meant.
“He’s trying to say all of these words, but what he’s really saying is you’re an African-American who is embarking upon a profession and who’s about to wear a uniform that this community has never seen before,” said Arradondo.
That advice stuck with Arradondo, 50, and could prove especially useful in his next job: taking over the Minneapolis Police Department nearly a month after the resignation of Janeé Harteau in the wake of a controversial officer-involved shooting. On Friday, the City Council approved his nomination, making him the department’s first black chief in its 150-year history.
The unanimous vote was welcomed with applause and hugs in a council chambers packed with elected officials, community leaders and a line of TV cameras. Outside in the hallway, one of Arradondo’s top commanders leaned over to a colleague and said, “Right time, right man.”
A beaming Arradondo said at a news conference later that he was humbled by the sacrifices of notable African-American leaders who opened doors for “men and women like me to serve in positions like this.”
“I take that with a great sense of responsibility and I’m just humbled that I’ve had people who came before me to uplift me,” said Arradondo, who counts among his mentors civil rights activist Josie Johnson and William “Corky” Finney, St. Paul’s first black police chief.
“Not only do we have a chief who cares about us, appreciates the history of what this position means, but it suggests to our children that the belief system that we have as a people can pay off,” Johnson told reporters.
Growing up in south Minneapolis, Arradondo was told that his blackness was something to be proud of, but that there would be times when his skin color may be all that others see.
“I was aware of my race and I was aware that as a black man I would at times be looked upon differently by society,” he said.
At home, he heard the stories of the struggle. How his father would, while visiting relatives in Oklahoma, sit in the balcony of the movie theater so that he wouldn’t get spit on by whites. How family members watched as Minneapolis’ North Side exploded in race-related riots and later as scores of National Guardsmen summoned by then-Gov. Harold LeVander filled the streets.
But he also was taught that his race shouldn’t hold him back.
“Never one time did they ever say that would stop you from becoming who you need to be,” Arradondo said. “It was never done in the context of suffocating my dreams or taking away hope.”
Arradondo has often spoken publicly about law enforcement having to come to terms with its historical mistreatment of minority communities. To move forward, he said, police departments must acknowledge their roles in past injustices.
“When legislative laws came down, whether it’s segregating our schools or universities, police were the people on the front lines that were thrust into those very hot-button social issues. That has not changed today; Charlottesville was an example of that,” Arradondo said after a community meeting this week at a northeast fire station, days after violence broke out over the weekend at a Virginia rally organized by white supremacists.
Diversity remains an issue
While his predecessor Harteau promoted more people of color into leadership roles, Arradondo inherits a department that has long struggled with diversity. In 2003, a federal mediation panel said the force could improve its recruitment and hiring of minorities and women. But some local black leaders argue that those efforts have fallen short.
City records show that in 2016, 8 percent of sworn officers identified as black — a percentage point lower than the previous year. Overall, the percentage of minority officers on the force has hovered around 26 percent the past two years, compared to 16.5 percent in 2003. The city is 31 percent minority.
In 2007, Arradondo and four other black police officers sued the city and then-Chief Tim Dolan, alleging an entrenched culture of discrimination in which African-Americans were routinely passed over for promotion or given less favorable assignments. The city settled with the officers two years later for $740,000.
As a national debate about race and policing swells, having someone in the chief’s seat who understands both sides is important, said Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington, who before joining Metro Transit was the chief of police in St. Paul.
“It marks, potentially, the kind of cultural change that the community has been asking for forever,” Harrington said. “The only concern that I have for anybody who’s chief in Minneapolis is the political world that they work in.”
And while Portland, Ore., and Dallas recently hired African-Americans to run their respective police departments, Arradondo still joins an exclusive club. Of the nation’s 50 largest local departments, 14 have black chiefs. (Minneapolis is not in the top 50.)
Vivian Jenkins Nelsen, a senior fellow at Augsburg College, said that in the age of Black Lives Matter, Arradondo will face intense pressure to make quick changes, and she said she believes he can be counted on to “do the right thing in difficult times.”
“The downside of it obviously is that a black person wearing blue now is [met with skepticism] in the community,” said Nelsen, adding that he could also face internal rifts. “Racism doesn’t go away just because you’re wearing the blue.”
Some black leaders say Arradondo’s appointment will be a positive step, but they worry that he will not be supported. Others, like Mel Reeves, caution that simply having an African-American in the chief’s office will not automatically restore trust in the police.
Reeves, a longtime activist, said he doesn’t doubt that Arradondo has embraced the dual identities of being a black police officer, but he suspects that “his loyalties will align with the organization that he has been a part of for the past 28 years.”
“The problem we have is systemic, so changing the people at the top, no doubt it can make some difference, but not the difference we’re looking for,” Reeves said. “At the end of the day, are folks not going to be harassed by the police? Are people still not going to be picked up for petty crimes that they wouldn’t be picked up for in Edina? Maybe, maybe not.”
That it has taken Minneapolis so long to appoint a black chief is mystifying to Ron Edwards, a civil rights activist who has frequently been a vocal critic of the lack of diversity in the department’s ranks.
Edwards said that while other seemingly qualified blacks have been passed over for the chief’s job, including Valerie Wurster and Bill Jones, who in 1994 became the department’s first African-American deputy chief, Arradondo’s appointment has taken on new urgency in the face of policing’s race problems.
“Race has become once again a paramount issue,” Edwards said. “Maybe it was a blessing that Arradondo was in a position to be upgraded to that position without a lot of furor.”