An interview with Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara

MPD Chief O’Hara speaks to clients at New Creation Baptist Church’s food shelf in South Minneapolis.
Facebook/Minneapolis Police Department

Mpls police reform won’t happen overnight

When the search for the next chief of police in Minneapolis was launched, the city had one major task for the right person: reform. 

After the murder of George Floyd and the sentencing of multiple police officers for various charges, including second-degree murder and manslaughter, the Minneapolis Police Department has been the focal point for channeling the conversation on police reform. The department is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice to determine whether or not it had a pattern and practice of violating constitutional rights and engaging in discriminatory policing. 

With so much scrutiny on the department, the next chief would be tasked with solving the systemic and cultural issues at play within the department while knowing the world is watching. 

However, for Brian O’Hara, none of this is unfamiliar. 

The newly appointed police chief spent over two decades in the Newark Police Department where he started off as a patrol officer and rose to the position of public safety director in 2016. O’Hara recently served as the Deputy Mayor of Strategic Initiatives for Police Services/Public Safety where he was commissioned to develop strategies to reimagine policing and work with community groups to reduce crime.  

Newark Police Department (NPD) has had a longstanding history of corruption and brutality that has led the Justice Department to launch an investigation into the department’s practices. In 2014, they released a report that found a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing by the department which led the DOJ to enter a consent decree with the city of Newark. 

Then a captain within the NPD, O’Hara worked as a liaison between the department and DOJ to implement the recommended reforms outlined in the report. Since then the department has implemented tougher penalties and updated its use-of-force policies. 

With MPD currently facing a DOJ investigation of its own, O’Hara and his supporters believe he will be able to bring change to the department, especially if the DOJ recommends that a consent decree be entered.

O’Hara is the first outsider to lead the department in 16 years but has quickly worked to connect with community members, activists, faith leaders, and more to better understand the city he’s tasked with leading. Issues such as gun violence are at the top of his list but expressed that the normalization of violence in the city must change for things to get better. 

The MSR recently sat down with MPD Chief O’Hara (BO) to discuss the challenges that lie ahead, what changes he wants to make in the department, how he plans to reshape the department, and how he hopes to repair the relationship between the community and the police department. 

MSR: How does your previous experience as deputy mayor and as a police officer in Newark, New Jersey inform your role as Minneapolis police chief?

BO: I think just the way my career has progressed, particularly since the police reform work in Newark was underway. It was just kind of a natural progression.

I was dealing with a consent decree, a court order to mandate reform; but I was doing a lot of work outside of that to change policing, to change what public safety looks like in Newark and involve [the] community and be supportive of other community-based organizations. We were trying to do things differently. 

In general, I think people think about police reform too simply, almost one-dimensionally. They think let’s just fix a list of things and sort of be done with it. That’s not how this works. There are deep-seated issues in policing that need to be changed. 

There’s also change in terms of finding ways to support [the] community to have a voice, not only in terms of the process of how policies and training are developed for police, but also having a voice and informing what safety looks like in neighborhoods.

MSR: What did you know about Minneapolis before taking on the role as police chief and what are you learning about the city that can best help you lead this department?

BO: Ironically, the only other time I’d been in Minneapolis was when I was with the Newark mayor [Ras Baraka] and a couple of community-based groups. We came to have some discussions with some community-based groups from Minneapolis and the greater region. That was in the summer of 2019, and that was the only time I’d actually been to this part of the country before this process began. 

Obviously, I had very limited practical experience in terms of what it really looks like on the ground here. But this police department, this city has been on my TV for the last three years—just like it has been in everybody’s living room around the world. I knew that this is kind of the center of the planet in terms of ‘what are we gonna do about police reform’. That’s what drew me to this city, to this work. 

I’m not sure that everybody quite understands the depth and the sustained effort and the resources that are actually required to make the kind of progress that people want to see. Changing the unreasonable and outrageous level of violence that’s in the community and trying to rebuild an agency to be different culturally than it was before is not something that happens overnight. 

Those aren’t things that we are going to fix overnight. That requires real work. That requires real engagement. And it requires an acknowledgment that the challenges that we are facing are urgent.

MSR: What were some of the lessons that you learned in working to address the consent decree and establish reforms in the Newark Police Department and how might that translate to your work in this department?

BO: The most powerful thing for me personally, having lived through this experience, is the way I approached the work in Newark. I was the person who organized town hall meetings around these issues, who actually went out into [the] community over and over again, and was the face of what we’re trying to do. 

Initially, what that looked like was me showing up and getting yelled at at times, and not even knowing what some people were talking about. But what I learned through that process is all you have to do is keep showing up.

People are not asking you to solve all the problems in the world. People are simply asking to be heard and to have a voice and to be respected. The people who are most affected—both by crime and violence and also most affected by policing—can tell who’s genuine and who’s not.

I developed a lot of friendships and allies [with] people who had spent most of their lives protesting the police in Newark, so that’s incredibly rewarding. That’s what draws me to a situation like this. I’m hopeful that we can have some similar experiences here as well.

Photo by Abdi Mohamed MPD Chief Brian O’Hara

MSR: How have your community engagement efforts been so far in meeting with community leaders and stakeholders in the city?

BO: I never feel like I’m doing enough. It’s the balance of dealing with bureaucracy and dealing with structural things that I have to do as a department leader in the city. But my job is out there much more so than it is here. I try to be in at least one house of worship every week—masjids and churches in the community. I try and go to every community event that I’m invited to because I think it’s extremely important for people to see me and to get a chance to know who I am. 

I sat down with the Imam at 24 Mall last week. He told me this [was] the first time a higher-ranking police official ever came to see him—let alone the police chief. Those things are important because they’re important to people, especially when you show up at a church. It shows respect for the pastor and the congregation, and generally, people give you an opportunity to introduce yourself to them, and that means a lot to people. So those types of things are very important. 

I drive around in a marked squad car, just the same as every other person that wears this uniform, so the cops see me show up at every homicide scene, every critical incident. I’ve often patrolled myself and will show up on random calls, because—especially as an outsider—it’s important for the police officers to see that I am not afraid to do the job that I’m asking you to do. There’s literally nothing that I will require them to do that I have not already done myself. 

MSR: How have you balanced the responsibilities of leadership over a department that supports officers, but also supports the community when there have been instances of police brutality? For example, someone like Derek Chauvin had been known to the department, and discipline, such as coaching, allowed officers like him to continue in their work. How can that change?

BO: With Chauvin what you’re referring to is just what we’re aware of. That’s not the totality of the universe of his interactions with the public. That’s just what we’re aware of. In terms of recruitment, to me as an outsider coming into this state, there are just too many barriers for kids from the city to become cops. 

I’m looking to try and change that—obviously because Minneapolis has hundreds of vacancies today. It’s a crisis that’s affecting the entire state, and I think we need to get serious about ensuring that we are able to do outreach to our kids [and] our residents and get more kids from the city to be able to become police officers. 

We have to look at that deeply and see what’s structurally in place that’s keeping our kids out, and be very intentional about changing that. The rank-and-file officers, that’s who people are dealing with and their behavior and that’s all culture. 

There is an outrageous amount of gun violence in the city. It’s absolutely disgusting. How many times are there shots fired, and how many people have been hit by bullets in this city? We want to make sure that even though we have such a small workforce to deal with this insanity and people being shot and killed over complete nonsense, we need to make sure that none of this will be normalized. It’s [about] injecting a sense of urgency throughout the department. 

It is understandable that officers have been through a lot here, that they have seen too much. But we have to always remember and always instill in them that none of this is normal, that we will respond appropriately and with urgency to all of it. 

MSR: The department has had an issue with retaining police officers in recent years. What are some of your thoughts on working to recruit new officers to the department? 

BO: There are two serious issues: one, policing in general. There are perception problems, especially trying to get kids from cities and getting people of color to become cops. So there’s that perception to begin with, and then it’s that much more pronounced because we’re in this city. 

I’m an outsider. I’m not from the city. I’m not saying that what we need in the community is only cops who live on your block or something like that. What I know is residents, especially residents who are most affected by crime, they want a sense of closeness. It’s not necessarily a sense of closeness in geography, but the sense of closeness that you care about what I need.

Maybe you can’t solve all the crimes. You can’t stop these gunshots that keep going off in my neighborhood. But when you come, I know you care, and you keep coming back. That’s what people are looking for. They’re not looking for us to solve poverty and poor education and historic problems that are the linchpin of all this violence and hold all these problems together.

MSR: What are your thoughts on disciplining officers who commit acts of brutality against the public? What should be done to discourage that sort of behavior?

BO: Well, in terms of coaching, that’s just one piece of this larger problem with discipline not being effective. In terms of coaching, we need to ensure that there are processes in place so that when coaching is applied, it is only narrowly applied to those situations where it is appropriate. Where there is no intent, there is no harm that’s actually caused, it is appropriately a training issue. 

The larger issue, as I see it, is people just don’t have faith in the disciplinary system. I think the community, cops, [and] everybody feels like this just takes too long, and because of that just by the sense that if discipline takes too long I think it loses its effectiveness. I think people in communities see it as not being effective and cops don’t see it as being legitimate.

I don’t think that penalties for misconduct necessarily need to be harsh, but it needs to function quickly. If it is something egregious there needs to be a penalty immediately and then pending a hearing and so on. But I think the biggest problem that we deal with the system is it drags on so long and it’s not closed out until there’s the grievance process and things are completed.

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