Minneapolis’ first black police chief shares his vision.
Medaria Arradondo’s vision for the Minneapolis Police Department starts with rebuilding trust in the community.
He also knows that will be a challenge.
As the new Minneapolis police chief, Arradondo is aiming to create a policing culture of trust, accountability and professional service, he says, in the city he was born and raised in. Arradondo grew up in south Minneapolis, and more often than not, people know him by his nickname, “Rondo.”
In August, Arradondo became the first African-American police chief in the history of the Minneapolis Police Department. Mayor Betsy Hodges nominated him for the post, after the previous chief, Janeé Harteau, resigned.
Before he became chief, Arradondo was second-in-command at the department as assistant chief. He has risen through the ranks since starting out as a patrol officer in 1989. Arradondo has held a number of positions, including school resource officer, commander of Internal Affairs and First Precinct inspector.
Arradondo is the department’s leader during a challenging time. Racial tensions are high. Police officers’ relationship with the community has been strained, especially after the deaths of Jamar Clark, who was shot by a Minneapolis police officer in November 2015; Philando Castile, who was shot by a St. Anthony police officer in July 2016; and Justine Damond, who was shot by a Minneapolis police officer in July 2017.
I spoke to Arradondo in October about his path to a career in law enforcement and his vision for the Minneapolis Police Department. Our conversation covered the challenges he faces and his passion for public service in his hometown.
Q: I want to start with your childhood. What was your upbringing like?
A: When my mother came home from the hospital with me, we lived in north Minneapolis. But shortly after my birth, we moved to south Minneapolis, and so I grew up in the Central neighborhood in south Minneapolis, and that is where I attended my elementary schools and my junior high schools, and of course, high school.
Q: Have you always wanted to be police chief or be in law enforcement?
A: I didn’t think about it probably as much for a profession when I was real young, but I think I started gravitating more toward that idea, certainly when I went away—after I graduated from Roosevelt High School—when I went away to go to college. My first couple of years I studied in a private two-year school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and that was for criminal justice, so then I really got, so to speak, “the bug,” and really thought it would be very fulfilling to be a public servant, and also the thought about giving back to my community.
Q: How does being a local kid affect you as an officer and now police chief?
A: Just having this affinity, this connection to your community, having lived in the city long enough to see how Minneapolis has changed from the time I was a child to even as a young adult.
We are so enriched with wonderful diversity in this city. Certainly Minneapolis was diverse when I was a child, but that’s expanded today, and I think that’s what makes our city stronger. I think that’s what makes our city unique and gives it many more offerings for our community. Being able to be a public servant now in a city that I’m so close to and so connected to, I just think there’s a comfort level and there’s a familiarity, and also a passion to want to do the best that I can for this city that gave so much of itself to me growing up.
Q: What does it mean to you to be the first black police chief in Minneapolis history? And does that add pressure to your job?
A: I was very humbled, very proud and honored, but I also felt the enormous responsibility and obligation I had to do the best that I could for those ancestors, for those other previous African-American leaders that paved the way and fought so many courageous battles so that I and other African-American leaders can be in the positions we are in today. I’m very humbled by their sacrifices, very honored by that.
But at the same time, I also realize, while I’m very proud and honored to carry that distinction of being the first African- American police chief, I also know that I’m also responsible for the public safety of 400,000 residents in this city, whether they’re black [or] white, whether they’re Christian or Muslim, whether they’re young or old. There’s a great amount of responsibility and also honor and pride that goes with serving all of our community because, again, that’s what makes our city so unique, so strong and so good.
Q: What are your major goals as police chief and how are you going to achieve them?
A: The pillars of my vision for moving the Minneapolis Police forward is one, we have to do it based upon trust. There are still communities within the city of Minneapolis [where] the Minneapolis Police Department has either not had trust established in those communities or lacked trust in those communities. In order for the police department to truly be effective and successful, communities have to see us as trusting partners and they have to view us as being legitimate. So trust is a huge thing that I’m working to change our culture within the police department by building those spaces and areas where trust has either not been there or it’s been lacking.
The other piece to my vision moving forward, is making sure that the Minneapolis Police Department, that one, that we hold each other accountable as peace officers. My conduct and my behavior, whether I’m on duty or off duty, has an impact on men and women who serve as Minneapolis police officers, so I have to hold myself accountable and be accountable to them, and it’s just as important to remember and make sure that our officers know that they’re also held accountable to the communities that they serve. We are held to a higher standard and for good reason, and so we have to make sure that we’re holding ourselves accountable to the communities that we serve.
Lastly, I would say that part of that vision of mine is making sure that we’re providing the best professional services that we can to our communities. I want to ensure that we’re the best when it comes to appropriate and prompt response to a 911 call. I want to make sure that we’re absolutely providing the best professional service in our community engagement and outreach, that we’re also providing the best professional services as it relates to recruiting and hiring potential candidates to be Minneapolis police officers. Those are the three things that I really want to focus on: trust, accountability, and professional service.
Q: I want to go a little more in depth with that. After the deaths of Jamar Clark, Philando Castile and Justine Damond, there are some people who distrust police. As the leader of the state’s largest police force, how are you going to help rebuild that trust, and what challenges do you think you’re going to face?
A: One of the things that I have to do in terms of building that trust is pushing the importance of that [trust] down to the officer level. It is one thing for me, as the chief and the leader of the department, to know the importance of the day-to-day interactions of what trust plays into that. But it’s the officers, it’s the men and women, they have to understand and never underestimate the power of the moment. The interactions they may have on the call, when they’re interacting with a youth from [high school] or whether they’re talking to one of our seniors at one of our senior living high rises, they have an opportunity unlike any other to try to build trust where it may not have existed before.
People often times in their lifetime do not call upon the police to come and interact with them, but that one time that they do, it can be a long-lasting impression. And so our officers, the men and women, have to know that those singular encounters mean absolutely everything. They can also mean the difference between how their conduct can dictate how the next time an officer has to respond to that same community member.
Trust is vitally important. I tell our officers, our men and women, that I provide them with a lot of equipment on their body to do their jobs, but the one thing I cannot provide them is the benefit of the doubt. They have to earn that. And they can only earn that by their interactions, being authentic, genuine, being done in a professional way, unbiased. That is vitally and critically important as we look at change in culture.
We know there have been incidents that have occurred in our city and across our country that have shaken the foundation of trust between our communities and our police department. And so I’m committed that when the last chapter is written, the Minneapolis Police Department will be on the right side of history.
Q: What other major challenges will you face as police chief?
A: When I first joined the Minneapolis Police, we really did not have cell phones. There really wasn’t a thing called YouTube or Facebook. And social media has really progressed, and our technologies have blossomed, and it has made our society, and our world for that matter, much smaller, and it’s done a lot of really great things.
But it has also meant, at times, that we can be a society and a com- munity that is a singular incident-driven society. What I mean by that [is] we can do a thousand wonderful things as a police department on Sunday, and if we have a negative thing that happens on Monday, we often times are sucked into that. And on a 24-hour cable news cycle, often times it’s very natural and common for folks to focus on that one negative thing.
As a police chief, what’s going to be challenging for me is, sometimes when those singular negative incidents occur, it’s important to pay the proper amount of attention and time and sensitivity and respect to that. But the challenge is, how long do we stay focused on that? Because at some point in time, if we’re mired in that one incident for too long, it can drain the hope from all stakeholders impacted by that. So that’s a delicate, challenging balance that I have to continue to work on as a chief.
The other challenge, quite honestly, I have as a police chief, is based upon some of the incidents you just mentioned, as I try to recruit and hire from a diverse city, I also know that the image of policing has changed over the last several years, and I’m competing up against a narrative that at times can be negative. So when I look to recruit young men and women of color, how do I present public service as a Minneapolis Police officer in a way that will capture their attention, but also bring them into the fold where they will absolutely want to give Minneapolis Police Department a consideration, like I did when I was younger, as a profession to give back to their community?
I do believe in order for us to change our communities and our society and our world for the better, we need change agents from both inside those institutions and also from the outside. And those will be two things that I’ll be challenged to continue to try to work on.
Q: Why is racial justice important to you and what does that look like from a policing perspective?
A: One of the things that I have to mention in my vision statement to our officers is that we have to look upon ourselves as being part of our community. We have to look upon ourselves as being no longer warriors of our communities that we serve, but guardians of those communities. And recognizing that public safety is not just the absence of crime, but it’s the presence of justice.
For example, what I mean by that is, if we’re peace officers in a sec- tion of Minneapolis where there is absolutely no crime occurring, but there is no trust that we have with that community, it won’t matter. It won’t matter. They are going to look upon us differently, they are going to look upon us as being agents of government that are there to harm them or oppress them, and there will be that distrust.
For me as a chief, [justice is] also recognizing the things that I need. So for example, as police chief, I need to make sure that our young people have good jobs, good employment for them. I need to make sure as police chief that our city has adequate housing for people. … I need to make sure that our city, our communities have the adequate medical health services that they need. … As a chief I need to champion these other types of resources that our communities need and not remain silent on them. If I remain silent on them, then I’m complicit in a sense.
Justice to me, as a chief of police, is not wanting to increase the capacity of our jails but rather increase the capacity of our high school graduates. To see more of our young men and women graduating from college. To see more trade schools in our community. To see more service back to our communities, and volunteerism. Those things to me are important.
Q: It seems like the police are under a microscope these days. How has that changed the dynamic of policing in Minneapolis?
A: There is certainly a lot more attention being played upon by policing, and I would say, that from a historical context, I think it’s been there to an extent. But I certainly think over the last several years that microscope and scrutiny has increased.
Our society has certainly paid—and particularly communities of color have always, I believe—paid attention to policing in their communities. Now just about everyone in our communities [are] carrying cell phones that can record incidents. Now, with the demand, and certainly here in Minneapolis we have them, with officers wearing body cameras. Back in the early ‘90s, when the Rodney King situation happened, there was no such group called Black Lives Matter. There were not these hashtags and other types of attention from social activist justice groups. A lot has evolved. There has been a lot more scrutiny on policing.
But I would also say, part of that is also because we are the most visible arm of government in any community. You’re more likely to see a Minneapolis police officer in the community than you would be the two senators that represent the state of Minnesota, than you would be to see your congressperson or your mayor, just because we’re constantly visible, we’re out there. We’re responding to over a half a million 911 calls a year in Minneapolis. There is going to be a lot of contact, and with that is going to come, particularly if there’s still distrust, there is going to be that scrutiny.
It’s important for our officers to know that in all of their interactions, use procedural justice. And procedural justice is simply that we value the process as opposed to the outcome. Procedural justice is ensuring that you give people voice, you give them respect, you build trust with them and you remain neutral in your interactions.
Q: What do you hope your legacy as police chief will be?
A: If [my legacy] can be looked upon that, during a time that our communities were calling out and wanting to see change for the better, and amidst the storms and amidst some of the chaos, I was able to have contributed in some way, as small as it may be, that we were able to change the Minneapolis Police Department culture so that our community truly started to looked upon us as guardians of their community and were giving those officers the benefit of the doubt that they were earning, and that we were able to change the culture and be on the right side of history, then I would be absolutely be fine with that. And I would also say, if both my community and the department members could know that, you know what, Rondo wasn’t perfect, but each and every day he came to work, he tried to make a difference [for] the better, then I would be fine with that.
This interview has been edited for length and content.