While Minneapolis city leaders decide what their Police Department should look like in the post-George Floyd era, the fate of a popular police chief also hangs in the balance.
Although Eighth Ward Council Member Andrea Jenkins and seven of her colleagues pledged last month to replace the city’s police force with a “transformative” public safety system, they admitted they didn’t have “all the answers about what a police-free future looks like.”
Among the lingering questions is the fate of Medaria Arradondo, the city’s first Black police chief. On a City Council wracked by Floyd’s death at the hands of police, views differ about what the future may bring.
“In my vision, yes, I see Chief Arradondo as part of a public safety continuum in the city of Minneapolis,” said Jenkins, the council vice president. “One of the things that people continue to talk about is that we need police officers that are from the community. Well, our police chief is from the community and understands the realities of Black life, the racism that exists in police culture and in the broader society.”
But some of her colleagues could go a different route. They say the chief’s fate will depend on a proposed charter amendment that eliminates the requirement to maintain a police force. If the amendment passes, some council members said they could envision a new department that may not include officers and could be led by someone without a law enforcement background.
In interviews, the 12 council members all said they respect Arradondo’s vision for the department and agree he should be involved in the conversation about its future. But much depends on the makeup of a new agency.
Council Member Alondra Cano said she supports the chief, but that “the system that we’ve given him to lead is broken.”
Cano, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, said she’s looking for a clean break. “We don’t want anybody who’s a licensed police officer to lead that new department,” she said. “I’m not interested in replacing one Police Department with a different Police Department.”
One of the strongest voices for doing away with the Police Department is Council Member Steve Fletcher. He opposed Arradondo’s request for 400 more officers. But he said he respects Arradondo’s vision for what public safety could be.
“He’s not diminished in my eyes for having tried to reform a department that probably wasn’t reformable,” Fletcher said. “I’m certainly not scheming to get rid of him.”
The chief’s backers say that Arradondo — who got the job when his predecessor, Janeé Harteau, was ousted following an earlier police killing — has made important reforms since taking over as the city’s top cop, but that he can’t be expected to change the department’s 150-plus-year culture in a matter of years.
Last week, the Minneapolis Charter Commission held the first of two public hearings on the police proposal, with most of some 100 speakers voicing support for putting the proposed amendment on the November ballot. Meanwhile, some members of the council expressed ambivalence about Arradondo.
“At the end of the day, whatever ends up happening, is the chief interested in that? And at the time is he the best fit for that? And I don’t think we have the best answers for that,” said Council Member Andrew Johnson.
A shocking increase in gun violence has added yet another layer of complexity to the debate. But Arradondo still appears to have support among some council members who favor a reconfigured department.
One leading council proponent of disbanding the police force, Jeremiah Ellison, said his concern isn’t the chief’s leadership, but rather a culture of unaccountability within the department that too often lets bad cops off the hook. It’s this culture, Ellison says, that he and his colleagues are trying to end by calling for a drastic rethinking of the department’s structure.
“That only supports Rondo (the chief’s nickname), that doesn’t hurt him in any way,” said Ellison, whose ward covers parts of north Minneapolis.
Phillipe Cunningham, another North Side council member, also voiced support for Arradondo, saying he believes the chief “is the right leader to help us reshape law enforcement’s role in public safety.” But, he added: “To support someone and to support their leadership, it doesn’t mean unquestioning, unconditional support.”
Council Member Linea Palmisano said that in her view, Arradondo should be an integral part of whatever form public safety takes in the city’s future.
“Any successful endeavor is going to require cooperation with our chief,” Palmisano said, adding, “I do imagine that some of these things will end up being less in his control than before.”
Lisa Goodman, one of the longest tenured council members, said that she has never shied away from criticizing past chiefs, but that she “strongly” supports Arradondo.
“He is the right person to lead whatever public safety function we have going forward,” said Goodman, who has kept a far lower profile in the debate over disbanding or defunding the Police Department.
Council President Lisa Bender said she has “full confidence” in Arradondo’s ability to lead the department “as it exists today.” But she added that the proposed new safety department may well take the city in another direction altogether.
“It may be that the leader of that work in the future would not be someone from law enforcement — it would be someone from a more holistic public safety background,” she said.
Council Member Cam Gordon said he worries about “muddying” the debate around policing with talk of the chief’s future. He doesn’t want to turn the decision into a referendum on Arradondo, a well-regarded police executive and lifelong Minneapolitan. “He’s the chief — nobody’s talking about removing him right now, and we can be open-minded about what the future brings,” Gordon said.
Council Member Jeremy Schroeder said a lot depends on Arradondo’s “commitment to change.”
Council Member Kevin Reich, like many of his colleagues, suggested it may just be too early to tell.
“Right now, I would consider Chief Arradondo a pivotal player in the changes that we are making,” Reich said. “I could absolutely foresee him playing a strong leadership role. ... But so much of that is to be determined.”