For many in Minneapolis’ African-American community, the nomination of the city’s first black police chief was a point of pride. “I want to say thank you for allowing us to have this moment,” Ora Hokes told Mayor Betsy Hodges during last week’s public hearing on the nomination of Medaria Arradondo to lead the department.
“I feel blessed to be part of this historical moment because he’s the right man at the right time,” said retired police officer Lisa Clemons.
“Here it is 2017 and we are just now considering for the first time an African-American to lead our police department,” said Steven Belton, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Urban League.
Arradondo, whom Hodges sometimes refers to as “a Minneapolis kid,” has spent 28 years in the department, working his way up. He will likely be approved by the City Council Friday. (If appointed, he will fill the remaining months of former Chief Janeé Harteau’s three-year term. In January of 2019, he would have to be renominated by Hodges or her successor.)
Hokes, Belton and Clemons were among 42 people who testified during the Wednesday meeting of the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Emergency Management Committee, nearly all in support.
But amid the praise for the historic nomination of a candidate, there were also concerns voiced about a police department that continues to evoke deep suspicions within the city’s black community. Many of those testifying in support of the man they called “Rondo” also feared he would be set up to fail. The council and the mayor, they said, need to have his back as he tries to change a seemingly unchangeable culture within the MPD.
“If you only put Rondo in the same position and don’t change that structure, we’ll be back here for another chief,” said Jerry McAfee, a minister at New Salem Baptist Church, who said the city’s police federation, the union that represents rank-and-file officers, is too strong and that many members of the City Council don’t want to take it on.
Brian Herron, a minister at Zion Baptist and a former council member, echoed McAfee’s concerns: “It does no good to put Rondo in as chief if he’s not going to be supported, if we’re not going to challenge the federation and challenge the structure and the culture of policing, which is what needs to be changed.
“I believe Rondo can do that, but he can’t do it alone.”
Experience taking on the department
In 2007, Arradondo was one of five officers who sued the department, arguing that the MPD was home to a racially hostile atmosphere. The case was settled two years later for $740,000.
In her introduction of him before the committee, Hodges said rather than take the settlement and leave, Arradondo stayed to help the department change. “He stayed in the department because it is how he wanted to serve the people of Minneapolis, and because he believed in MPD’s ability to do better,” Hodges said. “He also stayed to show other African-American officers that there is a path.”
That Arradondo challenged the department’s culture from within was also cited by John Turnipseed, executive vice president of the faith-based nonprofit Urban Ventures. “He had to stand around his enemies after he had won and hold his head up and continue to do his job so he would never be denied this opportunity,” Turnipseed said.
The shooting death of Justine Damond by police officer Mohamed Noor led to Arradondo’s nomination. Harteau was on vacation when the shooting happened and did not return to the city for three days, leaving her deputy, Arradondo, to lead the department’s response. Shortly afterward, Hodges asked for Harteau’s resignation and made Arradondo acting chief. She announced that she wanted him as her permanent choice on July 25, a move the City Council must agree to.
But McAfee said there was a difference between the public outcry over the death of Damond, a white woman, and the deaths of African-Americans in other police-involved shootings.
“One of the greatest insults to us as a people is when we see the response of many to what happened to our sister in the south,” McAfee said. “We’ve been saying what’s been happening to us for years but no one seemed to hear what’s going on with us.”
‘He is the community’
Most of those testifying think Arradondo can move the department forward and increase the trust of the department in the city’s black community.
“We have to be honest,” said Joi Lewis, “This is really a hard road ahead. People are dying. People are scared, They’re not calling 911. We need to have someone in there who will accept our calls.”
“He is the community,” said Anthony Hines, a lieutenant in the Metro Transit police and president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Black Police Officers Association. “I don’t think there’s been a chief here in the last 30 years who has been as ingrained in the city of Minneapolis.”
Terrall Lewis, a director with the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board, praised the nomination “on behalf of young people and youth culture.” Of Arradondo, Lewis said, “he has continuously made himself available to young people, per their request, in an authentic and very realistic way.”
And Al Flowers, a long time black-community activist and current candidate for mayor, thanked Hodges. “This is an important choice for African-Americans,” he said. “For the young people, I think we can get it across to them that things can change with this leadership.”
V.J. Smith also spoke of Arradondo’s connections in communities that have not traditionally had much trust in the police. “I’m here to support Arradondo not because he’s a brother but because he’s what we need, because he’s got what it takes, because I believe in him, because I’ve been in the trenches with him,” Smith said.
According to the Urban League’s Belton said, “He would be a disrupter but in a way this department needs to be disrupted. We have longed for positive disruption for a long time.”
And while Belton said Arradondo’s race is a “unique cultural context” for the hearing, “it is not the reason you ought to affirm him. The reason is, in three words, he is certified, qualified and bonafide. You will be proud of this decision if you make it.”