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Minneapolis’ incoming commissioner of Community Safety defines his; the division’s role in restoring trust

“We look at neighborhood safety as the beginning of the road (of community safety) and the police as the end of the road. We want to uplift crime prevention so people don’t have that interaction with police.”

Minneapolis Community Safety Commissioner Toddrick Barnette
MinnPost photo by Mohamed Ibrahim

Toddrick Barnette was confirmed Thursday morning by the Minneapolis City Council on a 12-1 vote to become the city’s new commissioner of Community Safety.

Nominated by Mayor Jacob Frey last month, Barnette has been a Hennepin County judge for the past 17 years, including the past three years as chief judge of the state’s largest judicial system. He replaces Cedric Alexander, the inaugural commissioner who held the position for just more than a year.

In the new role, Barnette said he hopes to take a holistic approach to public safety, and wants to center community input in the process as the Minneapolis Police Department prepares to implement reforms outlined by agreements with state and federal agencies.

Barnette spoke with MinnPost in the mayor’s offices at City Hall for this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

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MinnPost: What made you want to take on this opportunity?

Toddrick Barnette: I got a text from a friend who said, “Dr. (Cedric) Alexander is retiring. What do you think about being commissioner of community safety?” I hadn’t seen that announcement, but that was the first thing that kind of triggered it. And then after that, I’m still in contact with retired Chief Judge Lucy Wieland, who’s always been a mentor to me, and we actually sat down and talked about it. We talked about just how important being commissioner of community safety is, and just kind of going back and forth about if it was something that I would want to do. Would I want to leave being a judge and go into this role?

There have been a lot of committees and reports and work groups on community safety, and there’s been a lot of talk around it. There’s been some progress, but I really believe that after the murder of George Floyd, there’s a real commitment to action and making significant changes and that’s what I want to do. I want to be a part of that. It fits what I’ve been doing in a sense of public service, so that’s the part that excites me in this new role for me and all of the things that come with that.

MP: Since it’s a relatively new job with not many predecessors, how do you plan to approach the job without the benefit of history?

TB: The whole role and the way that this is structured is new – it’s probably just over a year old. I think that Dr. Alexander has laid a good foundation for the work to be done. I think that my approach is to really dig in with the five department heads under me – police, fire, 911, emergency management and neighborhood safety – and to understand the work that they’re doing now, know the capacity they have to go forward to set realistic effective goals, and to get input from community members and organizations on how we implement this holistic approach to community safety.

I know that for a lot of this role, for me, I’ll be defining it as we go along. But it’s definitely one in which I plan to get out into the community, I plan to get input from people and implement some of the recommendations that have been put forward.

MP: How do you plan to rely on your judicial experience in lieu of any law enforcement experience?

TB: I’ve heard a lot about the law enforcement experience, but I think people don’t understand the different roles that I’ve had. As a public defender, representing clients both in juvenile and adult court; in order to represent your client well and make challenges to the Constitution, you have to be able to know at that current moment. What are the police practices? What are their procedures? What are the policies in order to represent your clients? So even as a public defender, you have contact with law enforcement and try to understand what they do. As a prosecutor, I had the opportunity to work directly with law enforcement, talking to victims and negotiating cases as well. And I’ve been a judge for 17 years and most of that experience has been in criminal (court).

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Especially when I was the presiding judge of criminal, or now as chief judge or assistant chief judge, I’ve had to have partnerships with law enforcement or I’ve had to go out and listen to get input from law enforcement …

Over at the government center as chief (judge), there are 63 judges, there are 12 or 14 referees that we have and there’s over 550 employees. That large management structure I’m used to, the five different court divisions in family, juvenile, probate, mental health, civil and criminal. There’s five departments under me over at the government center, criminal court is the one that gets all the attention and here, police get all the attention, but I still have to manage all five so I think that’s important.

MP: As a University of Minnesota graduate, and with many years spent at Hennepin County, how will those local ties help you in this new role?

TB: I think being here since 1989 and seeing how the city has changed, being here that long and knowing about different reports and committees and workgroups that did some work in community safety, I think that helps me. I think my relationships with people and the collaborations that I had, partnerships that I had with different people, I think that also really helps me in this role. The friendships that I’ve made over the years I think are good as well. And it’s such a diverse community.

MP: The phrase “reimagining public safety” has been used a lot in recent years. What do you think that looks like in the immediate and in the long-term?

TB: That’s so interesting because I got the same question from the mayor, and I think that you’re the only person who has asked me since. What I like about this idea is that we’re going to take a holistic approach to community safety. The best way I can explain is this: under the five departments, we look at neighborhood safety as the beginning of the road and the police as the end of the road. We really want to uplift crime prevention so that people don’t have that interaction with police. Having this view that you can do both, it’s just not one, and that community safety finally is being looked at not just as law enforcement issue, not just as crime prevention, but being able to look beyond that and look at like city departments, or the county or the state when it comes to mental illness, drug addiction, really tackling it so that all of us are really being wise about how we’re using resources and being efficient with those resources.

There used to be a time that a person would hit the jail and they would get medication, whether that was for mental health or for medical health, right. When they left the jail, it was just, “Go set your appointment, go get your medication.” The jail worked with the county and worked with the courts and when a person hit the jail, they got evaluated and they were administered their medication, but what they started doing was when they got released, they made sure they had two weeks of their medication, they were trying to make sure people had appointments already set up before they left. That’s not really necessarily the jail’s responsibility, but it helps that person so that whatever their medical issue is or whatever their mental health issue is, we have that continuum of service beyond what happens when they leave the jail. So again, we’re looking at this holistically: how do we wrap services around this person and not just work in our different departments or offices or silos.

MP: The word “community” is right there in Office of Community Safety. Can you talk about the community’s role in the city’s public safety apparatus?

TB: I’ll go even further than that and say that it’s my belief that every person has a responsibility for community safety. All of us have to take measures like being mindful about our own safety first. I think when it comes to community – where you live, where you work, where you might worship – for the Office of Community Safety, it’s to get input on what people think we should be doing and how we can be helpful.

I think that’s part of what I’m saying: we’re at a point now after the murder of George Floyd where there’s this willingness to act, this willingness to do things – and part of that is to not just tell the community what they need or what they want, but to get that input from them so that we are addressing the needs.