John Harrington sees himself as an old-school cop on a rapidly changing beat that includes everything from natural-disaster cleanup to patrolling state highways and investigating fatal encounters between police officers and civilians.
The former big-city and transit police chief now heads the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, where he wants to scale up the ethos of community policing to a vast wing of government serving law enforcement from Duluth to Albert Lea.
It’s a tack that served the 40-year veteran well while leading the St. Paul Police Department and, more recently, as chief of Metro Transit Police, whose force he diversified at a rapid clip.
“For me, this is the biggest challenge I’ve ever taken on,” said Harrington, who is now six months into a job that required him to take the lead on repairing the state’s troubled vehicle licensing and registration system while also fielding sharp questions about how his Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigates police shootings.
The latter has become a flash point in police-community relations in Minnesota, particularly in light of prosecutors’ harsh scrutiny of the BCA’s performance in the 2017 killing of Justine Ruszczyk Damond by former Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor, who was sentenced Friday to 12½ years in prison.
Harrington has promised a new chapter in state law enforcement. Senior Public Safety officials will soon begin meeting with residents across the state, and Harrington is working with Attorney General Keith Ellison to study new approaches to investigating, prosecuting — and trying to prevent — fatal police encounters.
“We really feel like he can be an ally in making some major changes within our community,” said Valerie Castile, whose son Philando Castile was shot dead during a 2016 traffic stop in Falcon Heights, and who has spoken with Harrington since he became commissioner.
Ellison, who described Harrington as a longtime friend, said the two recognize a need for a “predictable, orderly system” that the public will trust and that will also be fair to officers accused of wrongdoing.
“When officers use deadly force on citizens, whether or not it is legally justified, it still just rips a hole in the fabric of a community,” Ellison said. “They want to know not that a legal threshold has been met [for a justifiable shooting]; they want know that when they call the police they’re not going to make the situation worse.”
In his first few months on the job, Harrington created a new community affairs director position similar to a longstanding legislative director. The community-facing component, Harrington said, will be aimed at bringing Minnesotans in on conversations about the workings of a 2,100-person department whose 14 divisions range from the State Patrol to an office for pipeline safety.
For the community affairs role, Harrington picked Nicole Archbold, a 15-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department and recent architect of a new liaison program for multiple minority communities. Archbold will soon help orchestrate discussions in communities across the state on topics such as deadly use of force.
“People are really excited that there is going to be an anchor for this conversation,” Archbold said. “We’re going to have recommendations across the spectrum, which we can then work to operationalize and really keep moving that ball forward.”
This spring, Harrington also selected former interim Prior Lake Police Chief Booker Hodges as new assistant Public Safety Commissioner in charge of managing the BCA, the State Patrol and Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement. Hodges was the first police officer to be president of the Minneapolis NAACP and is also an adjunct professor in St. Paul.
Like Harrington, Hodges likes to quote London Police Force founder Sir Robert Peel’s “principles of policing,” which include sentiments such as “the police are the public and the public are the police.” He’ll soon be taking that mantra on the road for statewide talks aimed at asking people what character traits they want in their police.
“We are blessed and fortunate enough to serve in some of the highest levels of government … but these agencies don’t belong to us — they belong to the people of Minnesota,” Hodges said. “In law enforcement, as leaders, we often fail our profession by living in the past and not preparing for the future. And that’s been a key failure of leadership I think in the profession by and large.”
Colleagues describe Harrington, a Chicago native who studied religion at Dartmouth, as an intellectual, contemplative police official. Harrington has been a faculty member of three metro universities, helped found Asian-American and black police officers associations, and has traveled to Somalia to help train and outfit under-resourced police tasked with responding to terror threats. His nonprofit Ujamaa Place, now nearly a decade old, has helped steer young black men out of the criminal justice system.
“Just the depth of knowledge was certainly there from his policing activities and education and teaching background,” said Gov. Tim Walz of his decision to appoint Harrington in January. “Thinking upstream of what happens if we get policing wrong, it becomes a corrections issue, it becomes a societal issue.”
Harrington served one term as a state senator from 2010 to 2012 before returning to law enforcement, a field he soon realized was more conducive to steering change at a quicker pace. Still, his new role now finds him back at the Capitol frequently to make the case for resources and testify on policy priorities for the Walz administration.
He has impressed some of his former Senate colleagues, including Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who leads the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. Last month, when asked about the top safety threat to Minnesotans, Harrington told Limmer domestic violence was “one of the great atrocities” occurring in the state.
“I heard a law enforcement person from his own experience talking to a bunch of policymakers,” Limmer said. “He answered straightforward on an answer that wasn’t really before us. I thought that was telling how professional he is.”
Harrington said this week that domestic violence will be a target of statewide law enforcement, including a search for new prevention and reporting mechanisms. The work will put him in touch with Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, who once worked for Harrington at the St. Paul Police Department.
“He can be oftentimes a bit unflappable,” Schnell said. “He understands the importance of the work that gets done but he is also thoughtful and is not going to just go off and do stuff quickly and not well thought out.”