Not five minutes into his first community meeting after taking the helm of Minneapolis’ Fourth Precinct last year, Inspector Mike Friestleben was asked the question on everyone’s mind.
Could north Minneapolis, home to some of the city’s poorest and most racially diverse neighborhoods, someday end up like Ferguson?
Sitting at the head of the table, Friestleben, a 28-year veteran of the force and lifelong North Sider, weighed his response.
“Could Ferguson happen here? It can happen anywhere,” he said.
But, he added, the potential could be minimized by community policing, and encouraging officers to get out of their cars and meet people on their beats, in hopes of avoiding the kind of civil unrest that roiled through Ferguson, Mo., and several other U.S. cities after a series of high-profile police killings of unarmed black men.
Months later, Friestleben — and his words — would be tested.
The Nov. 15 shooting of Jamar Clark during a struggle with two white Minneapolis police officers triggered a three-week occupation outside the North Side police station, near where he was killed, with protesters calling for reform and the release of any video footage showing the incident. As in Ferguson and other jurisdictions, the U.S. Department of Justice began an investigation into the shooting, the results of which may be released soon. State officials are conducting their own probe.
Now, as the three-month anniversary of Clark’s death approaches, the task of soothing racial tensions and restoring the confidence of the rank-and-file officers falls to Friestleben, 53, who observers say has remained a street cop at heart even as he scaled the ranks of the department.
And although he is no longer technically working the streets, Friestleben said that he still draws on his experience of growing up “Over North.”
“I think city kids … you learn to deal with some of these issues better,” Friestleben said recently as he glided through the precinct in a black SUV. “There’s so many good people [in north Minneapolis]. It’s probably 5 percent of the population who are nasty and cause crime.”
Chief Janeé Harteau picked Friestleben — because he was the “right fit,” he says matter-of-factly — last January to replace former inspector Mike Kjos, who was pulled downtown to take the politically sensitive post of First Precinct inspector.
In an e-mail to Friestleben and his officers on the morning after Clark’s shooting, Harteau wrote that she wanted to “express my admiration, respect and gratitude for the incredible patience and professionalism all of you displayed yesterday under very stressful, demeaning and unprovoked treatment.”
She continued: “Although it is important for us to allow people to vent and express their concerns, the conditions you endured were truly testing you on every level and none of your professionalism and integrity was ever broken.”
Besides trading in his blue uniform for the distinctive white shirts reserved for top brass, not much has changed about Friestleben. The divorced father of two adult daughters still carries with him the same set of 1950s-era handcuffs given to him by a childhood mentor.
Even the SUV that comes with the job turned out to be a compromise of sorts.
Friestleben was reluctant to part ways with the creaky blue Ford Taurus with 140,000 miles that he had driven for so many years because it brought him luck. When maintenance workers finally came to take it away, the car still had a bullet lodged in its frame from the time he was caught unexpectedly in the crossfire of two groups while responding to a call.
Friestleben, who is white, is counting on his North Side roots and the connections he has made over the years to help him win over residents whose faith in the police was shaken by Clark’s death.
“The reality is that he’s able to treat people extremely fairly and probably in a softer manner because of his intimidating image,” Kjos said.
With a down-to-earth, straightforward manner and the build of an undersized power forward, Kjos describes his replacement as a “big, tough teddy bear” whose new post hasn’t stopped him from politicking with residents at church gatherings, barbecues and block clubs.
His days are usually spent out of the office. A visit to Lucy Craft Laney grade school last fall saw Friestleben suiting up for the annual student-faculty basketball game, earning loud cheers from the giggling crowd after he drove the length of the court to make a contested layup. At an earlier meeting, he listened carefully as a woman talked about months of what she described as nearly constant harassment of her son by police.
Last year, he started requiring all of his 123 officers to attend at least two community events a year, in addition to their regular patrol duties, to develop relationships with residents and business owners, a practice that dates back to his days as lieutenant on the midwatch shift, from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
The message has started to sink in.
Last year, officers in the Fourth attended nearly as many community meetings as their counterparts in the other four precincts combined.
Born in Milwaukee, Friestleben was raised by a single mother in north Minneapolis, where, he says, “I could’ve been a better kid.” After bouncing around four colleges in two years, he finally landed at St. Mary’s University, where he played basketball for three years, leading the team in scoring one season.
A longtime Minneapolis cop named Ray Mruz, who became one of the biggest influences in his life, took him under his wing, inviting him over for Christmas Eve dinners where he talked about the importance of serving one’s community. Mruz was there when Friestleben graduated from the police academy, and gave his mentee the handcuffs he had used in his years on the force.
Friestleben’s first assignment out of police academy was working the beat in the Fifth Precinct in Northeast. He stayed in patrol for 10 years before making sergeant and working the overnight shift.
Friestleben inherited one of the toughest policing jobs in the city, where crime and poverty persist on the North Side.
At the top of his list of priorities is addressing questions over the police response to the 18-day occupation and low morale at the precinct station. Some officers privately criticized the administration for not acting sooner to end the occupation, accusing Harteau and the mayor of bowing to anti-police protesters in a bid to defuse racial tensions. He has also had to contend with an increase in violent crime — including homicides, rapes, aggravated assaults and robberies — which crept up 6 percent in 2015 after dropping the previous year.
Still, he has drawn praise from a wide array of police colleagues, community activists and City Hall.
Ron Edwards said that his sincere focus on developing relationships speaks to why he’s been able to improve ties with a community where mistrust of authority runs deep.
“When he became inspector, he had an interesting challenge in front of him, because of the [long-standing] tension between the community and the police,” said Edwards, an outspoken civil rights activist who was often critical of the department’s tactics, especially in minority neighborhoods. “I thought that he handled the situation extremely well, given the situation and the fact that the two officers involved were quote-unquote under his command.”
While he has received recognition in some quarters, some have criticized him for what they call heavy-handed tactics by officers trying to disperse the crowds. A photograph, taken by a Star Tribune photographer and later shared thousands of times on social media, of a police officer pointing a crowd-control weapon at one of the protesters — the son of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison — became one of the iconic photos of the protests.
Last week, amid continuing criticism, Minneapolis officials called on the Justice Department to investigate the city’s response to the protests.
Friestleben said that as inspector his biggest challenge remains unchanged from his days as a beat cop: getting to know the community and building trusting relationships while enforcing the law.
Mruz’ advice on maintaining that delicate balance still sticks with him.
“Don’t forget where you came from,” Friestleben said. “It’s easy to do sometimes.”
“That doesn’t mean you don’t lay down discipline.”