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Former Minneapolis police chief Janeé Harteau: It’s time to listen with our hearts, then speak with our actions

It will be difficult, painful and take time, but we must work toward actionable solutions that are embedded in a new policing model. 

We all watched in horror last week as George Floyd was killed at the hands of four police officers. I was shocked to my core and thought to myself, “How could any human do this, let alone officers wearing a Minneapolis Police uniform?”  

Janeé L. Harteau
Janeé L. Harteau
Once our initial shock wore off, it didn’t take long for everyone to look at the incident from their own personal perspectives and experiences. I heard opinions from each end of the spectrum, as some urged us to wait for “all the facts” and to withhold judgment, while others protested another killing of a black man at the hands of police.  

As everyone else was looking at this from their own perspectives, I was simply numb. I quickly began to question everything I thought I knew. The more time I spent reflecting, the more difficult it was to process. It was no longer just a death at the hands of police; the death of George Floyd shook my belief in humanity. 

In that moment, I also knew that it is no longer acceptable to see things from our own perspectives and that it is time we begin seeing them through one set of eyes in our country. Racism has been a systematic part of all of our institutions in America since this nation’s inception, and police departments are no exception. It is time we acknowledge our limitations and take action to make systemic changes within our profession. 

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I believe our communities need police, but only if we can achieve police legitimacy. By its very definition, police legitimacy means people have trust and confidence in the police, accept police authority and believe officers are fair and just. Officers can only build public confidence by treating all people with dignity and respect in every encounter. 

How do we make transformational cultural change?

The questions all of us face are, “What now? How can we make the transformational cultural change that must occur within police departments across our country moving forward?  Is it even possible?” It will be difficult, painful and take time, but we must work toward actionable solutions that are embedded in a new policing model. 

It begins with every officer standing up to denounce the actions of the officers that killed George Floyd. Not just today, but each day in both words and actions any time a fellow officer acts in a manner that dishonors the badge.

Having lived a life of public service, I know the majority of police officers across the country serve their communities with professionalism, bravery and empathy. We wanted to make the world a safer and better place. Officers who cannot denounce George Floyd’s death should turn in their badge, with no questions asked. Not doing so only endangers other officers and community members in Minneapolis and across the country. 

Elected officials must support the removal of barriers

Nationally, I hope we will have a robust conversation about creating standards and consistent guidelines for the more than 18,000 police departments that currently have a variety of policies and procedures. Police leaders must have support from elected leaders at all levels and be empowered to remove barriers to progress like the current role of police unions and automatic arbitrations. Many existing union contracts should end, and new ones created to support and foster a culture of procedural justice and return to the pillars of the 21st-century policing model. 

A police department must have all the tools and resources to effectively hire, train, develop, support and hold all members of the organization accountable.  These six pillars address all of the necessary components: 

  1. Building trust and legitimacy.
  2. Policy and oversight.
  3. Technology and social media.
  4. Community policing and crime reduction.
  5. Training and education.
  6. Officer safety and wellness.

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Finally, we all need to listen more, and to comprehend what is actually being said. We must acknowledge that we do not have the answers and listen to not simply the words, but understand the real pain and struggle behind the message. Most important, we must listen to our communities, be willing to change and regain the public’s trust. 

I will continue to listen and learn and use whatever influence and experiences I might have to be a small part of a much larger movement.  

Janeé L. Harteau is the president and CEO of  Vitals™ Aware Services. She is a 30-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department and served as the 52nd chief of police. 


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