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Minneapolis’ new police chief Janee Harteau says she’s ready to make tough choices, stress training

Harteau’s dream: that the perception and the reality of a first-class department are the same.

As careers go, hers got off to a typical start for a cop. She patrolled the streets of Minneapolis. Janee Harteau says she just did the best she could in every assignment as she moved steadily up through the ranks of the Minneapolis Police Department.

“I love the fact that we will have a chief who has worked her way up,” said Mayor R.T. Rybak as he officially nominated her to become the city’s next chief of police. “She’s a smart cop, a savvy administrator and a natural leader,” he said.

As an investigator, she served in the narcotics, organized crime and license investigation units before becoming an inspector in the downtown precinct.  It was there that she worked to involve the business community in improving public safety.

She also established a Somali liaison officer position to improve relations with that community in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

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Twice she went back to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in police science and master’s in public safety administration, both from St. Mary’s University in Minneapolis. She also is a graduate of the School of Police Staff and Command from Northwestern University. Today she teaches at both schools.

“I’m a life learner,” says Harteau, taking a break from moving into the chief’s office at City Hall.  She plays down the fact that she will be the city’s first female police chief. Her background includes French Canadian and Native American roots.

She was 22 when she joined the Department 25 years ago. Back then, being a cop was not a career most women thought about as an option.  But it was a career choice that captivated Harteau, and she talked with MinnPost about her time there and where she wants to take the department.

MinnPost: How did you even begin to think about a career as a police officer? 

Assistant Police Chief Janee Harteau: I tell people it was a very personal, kind of a spiritual move for me. I was a confused kid, not knowing really what I wanted to do. I listened to my gut.

I tell people I’m not a very religious person. I’m pretty much a bad Catholic, but I’m a very spiritual person, and it was very much a calling for me. I don’t know how or why I got directed but I did, and it was very strong. I think that’s why I’m sitting in the chief’s chair.

I just continued to do my job, whatever I had, to the best of my ability, not looking at the next position.

I knew at a young age I wanted to really have some kind of active role in the world, in society, and in what was going on. I just didn’t know what it was. And here I am.

So when people say, “How did you get here?” I’m not really sure. But I listen to that strong inner voice I have that tells me which direction to go. Even when I try to resist it, I find myself exactly where I am supposed to be.

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MP: What were the good jobs? What did you learn as you moved up?

Janee HarteauPolice Chief Janee Harteau

JH: From the time I was a beat cop in the Third Precinct [south Minneapolis east of 35W] I loved working the street and making an impact. We started one of the first safety centers.

I took down some pretty large drug dealers as an undercover narcotics officer, and that was fun.

Now I’m moving through the department and have authority to make the changes I think are necessary and have a vital role in that and the ability to put people in places where I think their strengths are so they can have opportunities. Those are the things I look forward to the most.

I think if I have any talent, it’s really seeing the talent in other people and making sure they also see it and can get there. I look forward to that.

MP: I was there when you presented your budget to the Ways and Means/Budget Committee. You were doing a nice job, but when you started talking about training, your personality changed. You were really focused and enthusiastic. How do you see the role of training as you take over the chief’s job?

JH: I’m a firm believer that training and education are No. 1. If you want a professional department, a premier department — which I think we are on track to be, not quite there — we need to have a Training and Development Division.

What we need to do is, not just train people in the beginning of their career, but throughout their career, and train our leaders before they get those positions.

I’ve had very limited training, even in my roles. I’ve gone out and gotten training. There are some command schools and things I’ve put in for, and the department has certainly supported me for that.

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But we don’t do a lot of purposeful strategic development for our folks at all levels. That’s what I want to bring internally.

Externally, we should be the premier training division for the state of Minnesota. We are the largest department. We are the busiest department. We are the most experienced department.  People come to us for training.

We have the best talent within this department, and many of us train nationally and people look to us for that. But locally, I feel we have missed the boat, and I really want to build on that.

Part of that is because we haven’t had our own training facility, building-wise, but now we have Hamilton School [a former grade school building in North Minneapolis acquired by the city].  We have a facility. And we’re going to be in a place where we have to hire because of attrition, so to me, all of the pieces in the puzzle are fitting together.

We’ve got this great organization, but now it’s time to take us to another level. If we plan and we build around this training and development, that’s what is going to launch us. That’s what is going to create our next leaders and the talent pool in the state of Minnesota. I want people to look to the Minneapolis Police Department as the training hub.

MP: What kind of training have you received as you moved up in the department?

JH: We had very minimal training other than on-the-job training.  There’s no formal training process for the internal leadership.

We do a great job when somebody gets hired. They have 16 weeks in the Academy and then they go to what we call the Field Training Officer Program. That’s six months of working with and shadowing an experienced veteran officer.

We haven’t had that with our promoted ranks — the sergeants, lieutenants and commanders.  There’s an assumption that you’re prepared for the next step because you’ve been doing something for a really long time, but these are entirely different jobs.

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Many people will just do their old job for six months [in the new job] before they understand the new position. I just want to be more calculated than that. I want to be sure we give our promoted ranks some more experience.

One of the things we’ve been doing is taking our sergeants and lieutenants, when they get promoted, and giving them field training where they go work with an investigative unit for a month.  And then they go work with another investigative unit for another month.

Then they do street patrol with a supervisor, shadowing and giving them advice and mentoring then for another month.

Because we’re so busy, it’s hard for us to have that duplicate personnel, but to me, I think it’s something we must do. We need to set people up for success. We need to ensure that they’ll be doing the jobs we need them to do — and frankly the sergeant position, to me, is the most critical job in any police department.

They’re the ones with those officers day in and day out, on the street, in patrol and overnight when the chief and assistant chief and all of the command staff are home sleeping.

They’re the ones who are there every night watching over, assisting, educating, training those officers. I want to put a lot of emphasis on those roles.

It’s about being a coach. It’s about being a teacher. Some people can do tasks. Some people can teach those tasks. Others can do both. It takes a rare breed to do both.

I think the more skills and training we give people to do both, the better our next generation of people is going to be. I think we’re at a place right now where all of the stars are lining up. We’re a very stable organization. Now is the time to tap into the experience that’s walking out the door [through retirements.]

MP: I heard you talk about the difference training made in the Accent Signage shootings. What kind of training was that, and how did it change the way you handled that situation?

JH: We did “active shooter” training. We put everyone from the chief on down through this training.  It was a very real live scenario where people were being shot with rubber bullets and paint balls.

The new philosophy in “active shooter” is you’re going in, whether you’re alone or regardless of how far away backup is, because we have to minimize the threat. We have to save lives at whatever cost. That was the difference, frankly, in what police generally have done in the past.

Because it was real live training, it felt real. For all of us it felt real and to have that practice is why the officers responded so well to the Accent Signage shootings.

There were at least three officers who went in immediately. While people were running out, they were running in, and that whole scene went well because of the training. They were prepared.  It doesn’t happen by accident.

That takes time and money. Those are things I want people to understand, that we have to train and prepare our officers for things that may never happen. But they might happen.

I guarantee that if I would have talked about this a couple of months ago, people would have said: “That’s not going to happen in Minneapolis.”

And I agree. It’s a great city. But you know what? It can happen anywhere, and we can’t assume it’s not going to happen here. We need to train our officers. It’s good for them. It’s good for the community.

MP: How has this changed since you came to work for Minneapolis? Now we’re looking at “active shooter” training. What was big 25 years ago?

JH: To keep fresh, we need to keep up on current trends. What’s the next thing? What’s the next event?

When I started, it was domestic abuse — that was a high priority — and protests. There were a lot of protests. We’re seeing more of that, but we have a different response than we used to.

We communicate more. It’s not just helmets and sticks, not to say we don’t need those at times, or pepper spray. But we do a lot of communication ahead of time to allow people the ability speak their minds and support their freedom of speech. And if they get out of line, we’ll handle it there.

MP: Where do you want this department to be five years from now?

JH: Five years from now, I want the public to believe and see what I see — that this is a department filled with professionals and that they have an excellent, dedicated group of heroes who do things every day that are good.

We’ll mess up sometimes because we’re human. We won’t be perfect. But what I want them to know is to trust in us and be able to say, when that one incident occurs, that video that doesn’t look good, or the incident where the officer doesn’t do the right thing, that they know that is the exception and not the rule.

That’s my dream for this department — that the perception and the reality are the same.

MP: What was your last street job, and what did you learn in that position?

JH: I was a second lieutenant in the First Precinct [downtown]. I was in charge of the day watch officers, the middle watch officers and the mounted patrol.

Every decision I make has a human impact because it involves human beings, whether they be community members or police officers.

I never expect more from others than I do from myself. At the end of the day I ask, “Did I do the best I could?”

Some days, yes. Some days, no. I know that I could have been better. I could do more. I try to leave things better than when I came.

MP: This morning I was talking with an old friend about this interview. That would be Dave Nimmer, who covered the police department for the Minneapolis Star and then for WCCO-TV.  He said I should ask you if you are tough enough for this new job. I told him I didn’t think the question was relevant, but here I go with the Nimmer question: Are you tough enough to be chief of police?

JH: I never try to be anybody else. I can only be the best Janee. I don’t want to be remembered as the first female chief. I want to be remembered as a good chief.

There are lonely days ahead. I’ve had some as assistant chief. I don’t know what it will be like in the chief’s chair, but I know the decisions are mine and I have to own them.

I will always do what I feel is right. People may disagree with me but, at the end of the day, I have to live with myself. I will make the best decisions I can make from the information I have.

You have to have a lot of intestinal fortitude to get here. You really do. I don’t think you have to be tough. I think you have to be willing to make tough decisions and tough choices.