Attention to the police shootings of recent years has finally found a scapegoat in Janeé Harteau. Her resignation as Minneapolis police chief on Friday at Mayor Betsy Hodges’ behest signals one of two things: an attempt at changing the culture of the Minneapolis Police Department to a more restrained response, or a political move swiftly and deftly dealt by the mayor in an attempt to eke out a win in a re-election campaign that is looking bleaker by the day.
So what part of the police shootings are actually the chief’s fault? There are several ways to look at this question.
The “buck stops here” philosophy soundly places the “blame” for the shootings on the desk of the chief, since the controversial Minneapolis shootings happened on Harteau’s watch. While none of these shootings to date has been found to be illegal or even improper, the community is unconvinced, and she was still the head honcho. (The fatal shooting of Justine Damond this month by officer Mohamed Noor has all the earmarks of an accident, which again, with the “buck stops here” philosophy, would be the chief’s responsibility.)
The second philosophy, which seems a bit more apropos, places responsibility directly on officers for their behavior. How can an accidental shooting by one officer be the responsibility of the chief? How can the Philando Castile shooting (which didn’t even happen in Minneapolis) be blamed on the chief? How can the Jamar Clark shooting be blamed on the chief when the Hennepin County attorney didn’t think the facts of the case warranted charging?
We probably need to throw in the recent dog shootings as well, since they created such a national fury. If one drives through the Near North Side, one quickly notices the abundance of houses that have a pit-bull variety of dog. Everyone knows the reputation of pit bulls to possess both a vicious bite and then a tendency to hang on to what they’ve bitten. More often than not, pit bulls are peaceful pets, but every now and then one of them lives up to their reputation, which causes that reputation to snowball further into urban-legend territory. The police have dealt with both types of pit bulls. Some cops have been bitten, some have been threatened, but all have heard stories of those who have been bitten. It is easy to see how this shoot-first mentality has developed. That said, if the dogs were mine, I would hope that an officer would at least consider before shooting them whether or not they appeared to be threatening, but that’s another story. Is the chief responsible for cops shooting dogs?
The final philosophy holds the chief responsible for the culture of the department. This philosophy holds water, since the chief should, in effect, be cognizant of the culture in all of its manifestations and change it if it does in fact need changing. That is the chief’s job.
So is the culture of the Minneapolis Police Department too violent, and, if so, can a chief change it? The answer, at least to the second part, is yes, the chief can and must change an ailing culture. This can be done in a number of ways.
First, the chief can change policy (read: rules on how police conduct business).
Also, the chief needs to lead by example and the examples of his or her commanders, and hold officers responsible for their actions. Transgressions should be made as transparent as privacy laws allow. And, while it’s the police union’s responsibility to protect its officers from undue and unjust discipline, if officers violate policy, they should be held responsible.
It’s also important for a chief to have the confidence of veteran officers, and that is something he or she must accomplish as a result of persuasive debate and interpersonal communication skills. (It’s nice if the chief can have the support of the mayor and City Council as well.)
Of course, it was the Damond shooting (in addition to the election) and the uproar that followed that pushed the mayor over the edge in her zeal to oust the chief. While the Damond shooting looks completely unjustified and unjustifiable, there are many facets of the investigation, including the officer’s hiring and previous performance, that will be scrutinized and most likely made public. Was Noor qualified to be hired as a Minneapolis police officer? Or was he recruited so hard in an attempt to hire an officer reflecting the city’s diversity that corners were cut? If any part of the hiring process was altered and the chief gave her approval to these amendments, then she may in fact bear some responsibility.
Whether officer Noor thought he and his partner were being ambushed or whether he inadvisably had his finger on the trigger of his service weapon when Damond approached his squad car and accidentally squeezed off a round, we will not know for some time, if ever. Whatever the cause, it’s horribly tragic. But to suggest that police are all a bunch of trigger-happy blue goons driving around waiting to shoot the next person who crosses their tracks is ludicrous. Police are trained in shoot-don’t-shoot exercises and in de-escalation techniques. These techniques are all well and good, the more the better, but unfortunately accidents will still happen, and this case has the hallmarks of an accident that happened.
As the facts of the shooting become public, the new chief will have new issues to deal with. (Hodges has chosen Medaria “Rondo” Arradondo, although the selection must be approved by the City Council’s Executive Committee.) He or she will need to make peace with the present culture of the department and the attendant issues that accompany it, or change it.
Richard Greelis, of Bloomington, is an author and a retired police detective and teacher.