Policing the police
When John Jefferson was tapped to lead the Minneapolis Office of Police Conduct Review (OPCR), he saw the role as an opportunity to continue his commitment to justice in a new form. Much like the mayor’s other law enforcement appointments—a commissioner for community safety and the new MPD chief—he is new to Minneapolis. In addition, he has taken on the role during a time in which the City is set to introduce a new system of police oversight.
Last December, the Minneapolis City Council passed an ordinance that would expand the Community Commission on Police Oversight (CCPO) to 15 members, 13 of whom would be appointed by the city council, along with two mayoral appointees. Of those 15, there will be three review panels that will review complaints filed against officers in Minneapolis. The change is set to take effect in mid-April.
In taking this role, Jefferson is aware that there is global attention fixated on Minneapolis as the world awaits to see how the city approaches public safety following the civil unrest that was sparked by Floyd’s killing. He shared his hopes of gaining the community’s trust in this role and ensured that he would take an active role in addressing police conduct.
“When I saw this position, I thought that maybe I could use my talent and my years of experience, not only from law enforcement but as a Black man in law enforcement, also as a Black man being raised in the late 1960s during the civil rights era,” he said.
“As I was conducting the interview for this job, one of the things they did bring up is this review board, and the way it sits right now it’s a little bit unbalanced.” While he would like to see some education for the civilian members of the commission ahead of their review process, Jefferson stated that he believes that this new model will give the community a chance to take back some power.
Law enforcement career
After stepping away from a law enforcement career that lasted 35 years, Jefferson’s retirement was short-lived when he was named the director of OPCR in Minneapolis.
His law enforcement career began in 1985 as a state trooper with the Indiana State Police force, where he spent more than 12 years patrolling the area around Gary, Indiana. In the latter part of his time as a state trooper, Jefferson was assigned to be a part of a task force created by the then-United States Attorney General, Janet Reno, to address the crack cocaine epidemic.
The task force was made up of local law enforcement and federal agencies to coordinate resources in the war on drugs. Jefferson credits this time during the mid-to-late 1990s for his transition to becoming a federal agent. “I crossed over to the dark side, so they say in law enforcement,” he joked.
In 1998, Jefferson joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation and found himself situated in Miami, Florida, where he took part in investigations against South American drug cartels. He worked to infiltrate their system and disrupt their organizations all throughout the Bahamas.
This was Jefferson’s day-to-day for a few years, up until the terror attacks of 9/11 caused the bureau’s mandate to shift from the war on drugs to the war on terror.
In subsequent years, Jefferson traveled to the Middle East and worked alongside special forces units to dismantle the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He conducted counterterrorism missions for several years up until 2008, when he went through another career transition.
Following the election of President Barack Obama, Jefferson served on the protection detail for Attorney General Eric Holder, the first Black man to head the Department of Justice. He returned to Miami in 2013, when he became the coordinator of the Office of Professional Responsibility under the FBI’s Inspection Division. In this role, Jefferson would investigate the misconduct of all FBI employees, special agents included. He held the role for nine years before retiring from the FBI in 2021.
“I’ve always been a person who stood for equality and justice, and I think with the FBI one of our models is respect, fairness, integrity, and a rigorous loyalty to the United States Constitution,” he stated. Jefferson said that his years as a local enforcement agent and his time with the FBI could serve as an asset in the role.
The City’s police oversight efforts have come under criticism following the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officers. A report from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found that Derek Chauvin had received more than 20 complaints since 2001.
The report also stated that 63 percent of use-of-force incidents were against Black people, who make up only 19 percent of the city’s population. These findings point to a larger issue plaguing the department, one which Jefferson believes can be rooted out by a culture change.
“Being a director, I’m looking at those things,” Jefferson said. “Sometimes you can catch it early. You can catch it early actually in the background checks. Once you see a situation and there’s a constant behavior, we have to be able to intervene to keep that person from [engaging with the public], or to keep the situation from evolving into something else that’s worse.”
The City’s website states that the OPCR’s mission is to “promote adherence to the highest standard of police conduct and foster mutual respect” between the police department and the community it serves. The current model for the review board calls for a minimum of seven members to be appointed by the city council and the mayor. Sworn officers are also a part of the current model and serve on panels with residents, but must rank as a lieutenant or higher.
The City of Minneapolis has put out a call for individuals to apply for positions on the commission. Residents may apply within their wards if they have an interest in joining.
Jefferson said he is encouraged by the proposed changes and that the current model, as it stood, was not enough to empower the community. “I want to be able to go out to the community. I want them to have confidence in me, first of all.
“I want them to know that I’m here for a purpose, not here just to sit in the seat. I came here for a purpose, and I came here for a change.”
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