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Why so few people believe the Minneapolis Police Department has changed since Betsy Hodges became mayor

Heading into Mayor Betsy Hodges’ re-election campaign, the list of police reforms initiated on her watch should be one of her chief advantages. That is, if anyone knew about them. Or believed they were real. 

Mayor Betsy Hodges and acting Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo at a July press conference.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

From the moment she took office three-and-a-half years ago, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges has made police reform a centerpiece of her agenda.

Along with former Chief Janeé Harteau, Hodges has pushed through a series of changes, from retraining officers to recognize their implicit biases to prioritizing de-escalation in potentially deadly confrontations.

Heading into her re-election campaign, the lengthy list of reforms and changes should be one of her advantages. That is, if anyone knew about them. Or believed they were real. 

Instead, amid another incident that has put the department and the city under increased scrutiny, there remains a conspicuous disconnect between Hodges’ frequent recitation of what she has done since taking office with the MPD and an oft-spoken critique: that nothing is being done to reform the department.

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The assessment doesn’t just come from residents and activists or via social media. After the police shooting of southwest Minneapolis resident Justine Damond on July 15, state Rep. Ilhan Omar sent out a statement that included accusations that the officer who shot Damond, Mohamed Noor, was acting based on his training. “The idealist in me continues to be surprised,” wrote Omar. “But I know this incident is another result of excessive force and violence-based training for supposed peace officers.” 

She added later that, “the current officer training program indoctrinates individuals of all races into a system that teaches them to act first, think later, and justify with fear.” 

What’s being done

That the work on reform hasn’t resonated with the general public clearly frustrates Hodges. While she said she called Omar to let her know what was happening and to ask her input on reaching out to the community — especially Minneapolis Somali-American community — she said she doesn’t recall whether they talked about changes to police training.

Still, after rehearing Omar’s post-shooting statement, Hodges said she has been asking people whether they think she should do something more — or different. “Are there changes that we need to make to our training?” Hodges said during an interview Friday in her City Hall office. “Acting Chief [Medaria] Arradondo has also asked that question as well.”

But Minneapolis police training is not what Omar describes, Hodges said. All MPD officers, both veterans and those who have joined the force recently, have been trained in new approaches to policing. Among other things, all officers who field 911 calls have undergone crisis intervention training to help them better respond to calls involving someone in a mental-health crisis. And the department has instituted an early intervention program to identify officers with potential problems — based on civilian complaints — and step in before they lead to misconduct.

“I agree with Rep. Omar that we need policing that focuses on guardians, not warriors,” said Hodges. “That’s why we’ve specifically focused on changing the culture of policing in the city and how we’ve trained our officers. And we’re not done yet. We need to make sure that the tools that we’ve put into place are working and that the community experiences the results of policy changes.”

State Rep. Ilhan Omar
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
State Rep. Ilhan Omar

As a result of the city’s involvement in National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, city cops have undergone implicit bias and procedural justice training. The former attempts to point out officers’ inherent biases so that they are aware of them and not to let them guide decision-making, while the latter is based on the concept that residents who feel they are treated fairly and are listened to (even if they are still cited or arrested) will have better views of the interaction. 

The MPD has also changed its use-of-force policies, which now declare that the lives of both officers and suspects should be protected. For the first time, the policy also states that cops have a duty to intervene if another officer is using excessive force, to render first aid quickly, and to report possible misconduct. 

In addition, the department is also stressing community policing, and recent city budgets have added officers to the force in order to give police more time to interact with the public and spend more time on calls. The city now tracks what are termed “positive interactions” between officers and the public, under the theory that if performance measures include positive interactions officers will consider them important. 

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The department is also making attempts to diversify the force, both by race and gender. And while alternative training programs have been questioned in the aftermath of the Damond shooting and will be reviewed, Hodges said they have been effective in bringing people from different backgrounds into police work. 

The city’s current budget also sets aside $500,000 for a pilot program in two areas — West Broadway in north Minneapolis and the Little Earth tribal community in south Minneapolis — to let the community choose programs that increase public safety outside of traditional law enforcement.

‘I have not done as good a job as I could’ 

The list does go on and on. And yet, the critique that reform hasn’t gone far enough, fast enough, persists.

Hodges partly blames herself, and says she’s tried to correct her own reticence to brag about the city’s accomplishments. “I continue to own that in the past I have not done as good a job as I could at communicating the work that I was doing,” she said. “I’ve made a lot of course corrections on that.”

But she said it could also be that human nature responds better to news about problems than solutions. “So that isn’t whether or not I’m saying things; it’s about whether people have the attention or the ears to hear.”

While she admits to some exasperation about the situation, she said she would continue to try to communicate better via social media, in public appearances and in conversations, “realizing that sometimes there tends to be more focus on the problem than on the solutions in media, or just in day-to-day conversations people have with one another.” 

“It’s understandable why people are frustrated right now,” she continued. “Terrible, heartbreaking things have happened and are happening in our communities. It was more puzzling when fewer people were deeply upset about it. 

“So, yes, I wish the good work that we have done was getting a wider audience that was receptive to seeing it at its face,” Hodges said. But she said the fact that “a lot of people aren’t yet in a place to take it on its face,” can be used to craft a way to communicate the message better. “That’s why building trust is so important.” 

A lack of trust

But there is another possible explanation for the disconnect that the mayor has had to confront: that residents simply don’t believe the city; don’t believe the police department and don’t believe her. 

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As part of the National Initiative, social scientists conducted surveys that attempted to gauge perceptions about police in communities with a history of mistreatment and neglect. And though the data were not specific to Minneapolis, the results were bleak. Asked questions such as do they believe police “treat people with dignity and respect,” only 30 percent of respondents gave a four or five grade (on a scale of one to five). Whether they “respect people’s rights,” was given high marks by just 30 percent.

Former Chief Janeé Harteau
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Former Chief Janeé Harteau

When asked whether they and the police “want the same things for your community,” only 41 percent of respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed. And 55.5 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “police officers will treat you differently because of your race/ethnicity.”

That could explain why, when Hodges decided to shut down the occupation of the 4th Precinct because she said was endangering public safety, some accused her of trying to stifle dissent. And why, when she said a budget amendment was needed to make repairs and improvements to that station house, some accused her of trying to fortify it against the community.

There is also the fact of life that it takes just one ugly and tragic incident like the Damond shooting to set back what has been accomplished. The failure of officers Noor and partner Matthew Harrity to activate body cameras, for example, has set back a program that was specially aimed at increasing trust and transparency —  something Arradondo acknowledged in the aftermath of Damond’s death, telling officers that the department can supply them with all the equipment they need except the benefit of the doubt.

“It doesn’t negate the pieces of the foundation that are in place,” Hodges said. “It doesn’t negate the policy changes; it doesn’t negate the training; it doesn’t negate the hiring and the investment and the community strategies. All of those will remain in place. The flip side is, does it reduce tentative trust that may have been building? Absolutely it does.”

Redistributing discomfort? 

In her state of the city speech delivered earlier this year, Hodges talked a lot about “discomfort”:  “Nowhere have we faced the headwinds of discomfort more than in the work we are doing to transform public safety, policing and police — community relations — and nowhere are we sticking with the work more tenaciously through the discomfort, to the benefit of everyone,” she said. 

So who is uncomfortable? “Discomfort is a mild word for what people have experienced regarding policing,” Hodges said. “Communities of color have been uncomfortable about policing for generations. Communities of color have been organizing around, upset about, naming the disparity in policing for generations.”

“Over the last two years, that has become part of the national conversation between communities of color and white communities, and now white people are uncomfortable about policing,” she said. “What’s new is the discomfort has been expanded, redistributed.”

But if some on the left do not believe or do not accept that the reform attempts are legitimate, some on the right believe they are both real and illegitimate. In her state of the city speech, Hodges spoke of those who think the changes will handcuff police and harm public safety, and even challenged what she termed a myth that she and Harteau told officers not to enforce the law as aggressively as they had in the past.

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Today, Hodges says she understands that some people are concerned about what the city is doing regarding policing. “It is not clear to me what changes people want in addition to the ones we are making,” she said. “Which isn’t to say people don’t have ideas, it’s just not clear to me.” 

“It is also understandable to me that at a time when people aren’t trusting policing they would have a lot of questions about whether or not the steps we’ve taken are the right ones or effective,” she said.

And while she is eager to discuss what’s she’s done, why she thinks it will be effective, and to hear about other ideas — that conversation has to start with an agreement that the city is going to have law enforcement.

“Not everybody starts from there; I do,” she said. “If we start from the premise that there will be a police department, then what do we do to make sure it is the best and most-effective police department we can have.”

One example of that is the pilot projects in north Minneapolis and Little Earth, which came in response to calls for more involvement from the community in deciding how to achieve safety, including the idea that not all responses to issues need to come from uniformed officers.

How long is long enough?

In speeches, Hodges often mentions that she is playing a long game on police reform; that the changes she thinks are necessary will take a while to see to fruition.

But how long will it take to see if those efforts are effective?

“I’ve heard that it takes five to seven years to do real culture change,” she said. “We’re probably in the middle of year four, headed to year five.” 

“I will keep doing this work, I will keep making the changes needed and following that up with concrete action as long as that takes and as long as I’m leading. My hope is that people on the ground are going to be able to experience these changes very viscerally over the course of the next two, three, four years.” 

Former Chief Harteau was the face of the reconciliation message that’s been part of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. She was the one meeting with the community and delivering apologies in what she called “empathy and healing sessions.”

With Harteau’s resignation (at Hodges’ request) and the ascension of Deputy Chief Arradondo, Hodges does not expect a disruption in the department’s response to the National Initiative work, or other reform measures. Arradondo, a 28-year-veteran known as “Rondo,” has been one of the leaders in many of the reform efforts, including the National Initiative work, the use of force changes and the body camera implementation. And he joined Hodges last month in calling for policies that will greatly reduce the discretion officers have for activating cameras.

Hodges said that her desire for continuity on those issues was one of the factors that caused her to nominate Arradondo for the permanent job as chief. But she also wants him in the role because, “I know he also has fresh thinking and has ideas for how to take the work to the next level as well as the relationships and the communication skills to ingrain the work that already been done.”

“And because we’ve asked so much change, one of the other factors was to make sure we are bringing stability to the department,” she said. “There’s a lot of change happening in the MPD, and I wanted to make sure there was stability with a known leader who is deeply and widely respected and liked both inside the department and out in the city.”