Back in his days as a homicide detective, Minneapolis Deputy Chief Erick Fors impressed colleagues with his cool, precise approach to solving crimes.

“You’ll see some people come through Homicide over the years, where they just want to have their names on the business cards,” said Lt. Richard Zimmerman, a longtime homicide detective who has run the unit for the past dozen years.

Not Fors: “He cared about victims and victims’ families,” Zimmerman said.

That much, he added, is unchanged about Fors, who has moved steadily up the ladder: from beat cop to interim precinct inspector to head of the 200-member investigative bureau. At the same time, the 22-year department veteran has raised his public profile, most recently by spearheading efforts to clear a backlog of unexamined rape kits, fueling speculation that he could someday lead the department.

“To be a good leader of people, not just a manager of people, you have to care about them and they have to know you care about them,” Fors said, in a recent interview in his downtown office. “Your employees have to know you want the best for them — and that doesn’t mean not holding them accountable.”

Fors has always showed a willingness to listen to other points of view and consider all the facts before arriving at a conclusion, said Eden Prairie Police Chief Greg Weber, who was enrolled in the same master’s degree program with Fors at the University of St. Thomas.

“I think emotional intelligence is something that’s extremely important,” said Weber, “the ability to be empathetic and listen to the concerns of others.”

Fors, 45, first landed at the Minneapolis Police Department in 1998, after working as a high school security guard and correctional officer at Lino Lakes prison, and he ping-ponged up the ranks. After stints as a patrol officer in northeast and southeast Minneapolis, he went on to serve on the crisis intervention team, as a background investigator, and, for a time, he filled in as inspector of the politically important downtown precinct.

“Officer Fors interacts with the public, victims and suspects alike, with the utmost level of professionalism and compassion,” a supervisor wrote in one of several commendation letters in his personnel file.

‘The First 48’

In 2007, he was assigned to the homicide unit shortly after making sergeant, and he quickly earned the respect of colleagues for his doggedness and ability to get the most tight-lipped suspects to talk to him.

Among other cases, he investigated the still-unsolved killing of 3-year-old Terrell Mayes Jr. in a drive-by shooting. A picture of the boy still sits in the window of Fors’ office. He and then-partner Darcy Klund also worked the brutal murders of Katricia Daniels and her 10-year-old son, Robert Shepard, eventually arresting the two teenage suspects, in a case that was later documented on the A&E reality show “The First 48.”

“The ones that stick with you are the ones that you’ve done pretty much everything that you think you can, you’ve uncovered every bit of evidence, and the county attorney agrees that you’re really close,” Fors said. “But you’re not quite there yet.”

Even then, colleagues say, Fors had the makings of a leader: poker-faced and decisive. “That’s the detective in me,” he said with a smile.

That guardedness has never left Fors, who declined to discuss even closed cases that he had worked on.

The married father of two was even more reluctant to describe his interests outside of work. Hiking and reading was all he offered at first. But, when pressed, he admitted to having just finished a book about the opioid epidemic — though he generally avoids true crime “because you can only get so much of that.”

He leaned forward in his chair, gesturing, while describing another book he had just put down: the biography of former Minneapolis Mayor A.A. “Doc” Ames, who presided over a corrupt city at the turn of the 20th century.

Fors grew up in St. Paul’s North End neighborhood. He was an all-state offensive lineman at Central High School, and he also played at Lindenwood University in Missouri, where he double-majored in psychology and criminal justice. He later received a master’s in police leadership at St. Thomas.

Uproar over rape kits

Long an advocate of evidence-based policing, he has also had a hand in some of the department’s more progressive programs, such as group violence intervention and procedural justice.

But he first drew public attention last summer, following the uproar over the disclosure that DNA evidence from hundreds of potential sex assaults had gone untested, in some cases, for 30 years. He was repeatedly called before the City Council’s public safety committee, pledging to clean up the backlog and make other reforms demanded by city officials.

It was also around that time that he caught the eye of some at City Hall, who see him as a potential future chief, in Minneapolis or elsewhere. But others caution that any speculation about who will run the department next is premature. The current chief, Medaria Arradondo, is a popular figure who hasn’t signaled whether he intends to seek a second term as the city’s top cop.

According to Kenosha Davenport, who served with Fors on a work group considering new guidelines for dealing with victims of sexual assault, her dealings with him erased any doubts she had about the department’s commitment to change.

“Having people on the force that understand the importance of each victim to use their voice, to ensure that they have their kits tested, is very vital to the justice process,” said Davenport, executive director at the Sexual Violence Center. “He can come across as kind of soft-spoken, but I also think that he also shows strong leadership.”

Zimmerman, the homicide lieutenant, said Fors brings a detective’s thoroughness and attention to detail to a position that, despite its title, has often been filled by officials with little in the way of investigative experience. He recalled getting middle-of-the-night calls from Fors, wanting to be briefed on a fresh murder. Fors is also known to wander through Room 108, where most of the department’s major crimes detectives work, asking questions and offering suggestions on the best approaches to certain cases.

Reform-minded approach

Some department insiders question how his easygoing nature will play with a City Council that has taken an aggressive stance on police reform.

Fors said his focus is on carrying out Arradondo’s vision for transforming the department, even as police everywhere are increasingly being asked to address issues arising from social conditions including poverty, inadequate housing and isolation.

“A lot of the issues that you see with mental illness will manifest itself with calls to the police,” he said, adding that the same is true of the opioid epidemic. “I think that anyone getting into this line of work has to realize that law enforcement is in a constant state of evolution.”