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Outgoing Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington reflects on term

Harrington’s term included a pandemic and George Floyd’s murder by a then-Minneapolis police officer, which sparked global outrage and calls for racial equity in policing.

Commissioner John Harrington shown at a May 27, 2020, press conference following the murder of George Floyd.
Commissioner John Harrington shown at a May 27, 2020, press conference following the murder of George Floyd.
John Autey/Pioneer Press/Pool via REUTER

Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington stepped down this month after deciding not to seek a second term.

Before joining Gov. Tim Walz’s cabinet, Harrington was chief of the Metro Transit Police Department and led the St. Paul Police Department before that. As head of the state’s largest public safety agency, Harrington’s first and only term included a pandemic and George Floyd’s murder by a then-Minneapolis Police officer, which sparked global outrage and calls for racial equity in policing.

Harrington spoke with MinnPost for this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

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What went into your decision to step down?

I’m 67, or will be in about a week or so, and as I read the obituaries on a daily basis, I saw more and more of the people that I had come up with, even those who come on after me, so there is no day promised to anybody. There is a point in your career where you one day realize you’re saying “no” to good ideas because you don’t think you’d have enough time left or enough gas left in the tank to say “yes” to really bright, creative ideas. At that point in my career, it’s always been time for me to step aside.

In some cases, I stepped aside because I also had Tom Smith right behind me at St. Paul (Police Department) and knew that Eddie Frizell was always going to want to follow at (Metro Transit Police Department). But there’s just a moment where you come to recognize that it’s time and if you don’t step aside, the time will pass you by anyway.

The pandemic began a year and some change into your tenure as commissioner. How did that make your job as commissioner more challenging?

I had an early warning that COVID was a big deal — I had been in (a) Homeland Security meeting and we got a briefing on this new disease that was impacting China and that they weren’t really sure whether it was going to have any international impact, but it had some of the hallmarks of a pandemic that they were seeing already. So we knew a little bit about it but in March (2020), we really didn’t know enough to really think through what were the implications. At that time, it really seemed like that was like it was a health emergency that would have been, in most situations, not something the Department of Public Safety (DPS) would have a lot of interaction with.

But in this case, because State Public Safety also runs Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM), the state emergency operations center was activated. It stayed open for I think almost 700 days – it was the longest activation of the emergency operations center in the history of the state. We began tooling up to try and figure out how DPS could be of assistance to the 87 counties, to the municipalities, to the state in a very broad sense of logistics, planning, and pulling people together.

A few months after the beginning of the pandemic, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. How did his murder affect your job as the state’s top cop? 

Chief Rondo (then Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo) called me to say “You need to look at this video that is getting traction on social media,” because up until that point, we had not been involved in the murder of George Floyd. Part of that speaks to the whole issue of what Minneapolis put out initially (a statement that made the claim that Floyd died of a medical incident while in custody), but once it became clear that it was a murder, the Department of Public Safety, which houses the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), now was the lead investigatory agency in the investigation of the murder. So that becomes a starting point for us with (BCA Superintendent) Drew Evans and his team.

In addition to the BCA’s role in the investigation, the arrest of Derek Chauvin and bringing of the charges forward that ultimately resulted in he and all three of the other officers being convicted of the crime, the state got brought in fairly quickly when we were getting reports of large protests. I think the number that was reported to me was tens of thousands of people marching through Minneapolis and we were initially asked simply: if there were freeway protests, we would be prepared for that. Historically, the state has not had a role in civil protests in major cities. Minneapolis, a major city, typically doesn’t ask for state assistance in protests because most of the time Minneapolis handles their own business. Once it became clear that Minneapolis was not equipped to respond to the protests, the DPS had to make a call to say “how can the state be of assistance to Minneapolis?”

We did that initially through counsel and consultation but ultimately, when the fires continued and the looting began, there still was what – in my judgment – was not an adequate response. I think my judgment has probably been validated by the after-action reports that Minneapolis did (an independent auditor commissioned by the city of Minneapolis authored the report). But once that happened, the state then stepped into a role that we had not been in before, which was to essentially assume command of the response to the protests.

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We pulled in resources from far and wide. We asked literally not only every police agency in the state but every sheriff’s department in the state, and even asked for out of state help to pull together the resources that we needed. I think the protests in most cases were peaceful. They may have been loud. They may have been raucous, but they were not violent. But there were groups that were operating in the cities, setting fires, using arson, injuring people, doing criminal activities, looting stores. So we stepped in to try and take the lead to say “how can we coordinate our response to stopping that?” and within a few days the state started really operating as a lead agency.

What did you make of criticism over the law enforcement response during protests after Floyd’s and Daunte Wright’s killings, and the use of tear gas and less-lethal rounds against peaceful protesters?

We think we’ve addressed that pretty robustly. We provided probably some of the finest training to make sure that our folks were well trained; we’ve set policy, and we’ve been quite open to owning that in the midst of a chaotic situation. There were mistakes made and changes needed to happen and work especially with the journalists. I think that was the group that I felt that we did the most work with was to try and make sure that the First Amendment and those folks from the Fourth Estate were fine. We’ve now got policy so that we are not arresting them, we are no longer directing them. And we brought in great subject matter experts from the media itself to try and make sure that every state patrol, every Trooper is well trained and well informed about how we should respond in the future.

What did you make of reports that individuals were coming in from out of state, with white supremacist groups or otherwise, to take advantage and escalate the situation?

Well, there was disinformation that we found that we ultimately realized was just disinformation that was being spread throughout social media. But there were also some cases where the FBI has done investigations on a couple of those kinds of groups to determine if folks were coming into town to provide support or to incite. So there was a lot of disinformation on the social media side that we were responding to.

We also did investigations that did in fact validate that there were folks from some of those groups that were not local. I think this was a misstatement early on that there were folks from out of town – there were folks from out of town, I remember the first night of arrests there were folks from Texas and Arkansas and Wisconsin and lots of other places – but the majority of the folks that we saw that were in the protests and who were taken into custody were in fact Minnesotans. So I think there was a little bit of confusion, which is not terribly surprising, given the chaotic situation we were all experiencing during those first few days.

What would you say were your biggest accomplishments?

The Deadly Force Encounters working group that we did with the Attorney General was the first and only time that any state has ever taken a statewide approach to say we want to reduce gun violence and we want to reduce deadly force by police officers. And also that it began our process of looking at how we reduce the amount of gunplay that we see out in the streets because the two are not disconnected completely. Working with the AG’s office coming up with a lot of policy, a lot of which is still sitting, waiting to be enacted, but getting the use of force unit for the BCA created, getting a victim services person assigned to the BCA and funded so that we have somebody who worked with the families when somebody loved one was taken in a deadly force encounter with a police officer. Those were important early steps and I think we’re really valuable.

The last two years, we leaned into the whole issue around violent crime and gun violence in the city of Minneapolis and in the Twin Cities in particular. Remember when the three babies were shot over in north Minneapolis? BCA was able to come in, make the arrest and close one of those cases. We’re still working on it but bringing that person to justice was a big, big accomplishment. But just as important was the work that BCA did on taking the switches on fully automatic weapons off of the streets over the last few years, and really working very collaboratively with Minneapolis and with our federal partners to try and reduce the crime in Minneapolis. From what I can hear from the new chief in Minneapolis, we’re on the right track.

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Biggest challenges?

We didn’t get as far on domestic violence as I had hoped. That has always been a passion of mine and it continues to be one of the most frequent and most horrific violent crimes that I’m aware of. I hoped that we were going to be able to pull together greater resources for housing for battered women and additional investigators, mutual aid and we just were never able to get that across the table. So that was a challenge that I felt that we left things on the table. We worked our asses off trying to get there but it eluded me in terms of being able to get the kind of state funding and the state focus that I thought it deserved.

Another area which I was also disappointed that we were not able to pull it off the table was the whole issue around police powers for tribal police. We had been pushing since I got there for all tribal police agencies to have full police powers and be fully recognized and we weren’t able to pull that across the table. We were never able to really get to the point where every tribal police officer was well trained and as well-equipped as any other local police department. We could never quite get that across the finish line to get their full recognition and that has hampered some of our public safety and law enforcement work that we wanted to do in greater Minnesota. Because in many cases, and if you think about it, from like community policing perspective, who knows the community better than the local cops. But when the local cops are not allowed to act as full-fledged members of the public safety community, it puts them in a bind.

Any plans to going back into law enforcement?

I’m 67 so that’s not very likely, but as James Bond would say in his movies “Never say never.”