Breaking News
More () »

'I believe I am here on purpose' | MPD Chief nominee Brian O'Hara pledges change

In his first one-on-one interview with KARE 11, O'Hara promised to rebuild trust between MPD and the city following the murder of George Floyd.

MINNEAPOLIS — Following a public hearing on Wednesday, Brian O'Hara could be confirmed as the next chief of police in Minneapolis as early as next week. 

The deputy mayor of Newark, N.J., who previously led the city's Department of Public Safety, would become the first chief hired from outside the Minneapolis Police Department in nearly two decades.

On Wednesday morning, KARE 11's Danny Spewak went one-on-one with O'Hara, covering a range of topics during a 30-minute interview. 

Here is a transcript of that conversation.

Q: The next step here is the council, with a vote possibly next week. What's your final pitch to them? What makes you the right person for the job at this moment in Minneapolis?

A: I certainly believe things happen for a reason. I think the experiences that I have had in Newark have prepared me for this moment. I believe that I am here on purpose. Newark is a similar city, a city that's faced similar challenges over the years, particularly challenges around gun violence, as well as challenges historically, around police-community relations. 

And I think the work that we led in Newark around reducing gun violence, to the lowest levels in decades, as well as reforming the police department in a way that residents have experienced meaningful reform, have uniquely prepared me for this moment. And it's something I believe in very deeply. It's work that I've found incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, personally. I believe that I am where I am supposed to be right now.

Q: When you saw this job came open, was this something you proactively reached out and applied for? Did the search firm find you? How did that all work?

A: I believe one of the folks involved in the search process [was] the first person that made me aware of the opening. But as soon as I heard of this, I felt in my gut this was right for me, even though some folks I'm very close with personally did not agree with me. Then, quickly, the next day were telling me, 'yes.' This type of work is almost like a calling, police work in general. 

I am in it, I believe, to try and do what a lot of people think is impossible. I believe it is possible to cultivate culture change in policing, respecting human rights, and also work in a way that helps reduce gun violence in a real way. Those are the priorities, and the skillsets, that I believe are useful to the folks here in Minneapolis.

WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with Minneapolis Police Chief nominee Brian O'Hara.

Q: We've heard a lot about culture change. It's no secret what this department's reputation is coming out of the murder of George Floyd. How do you achieve culture change in this department?

A: Well, first off, talking about the police department here, there's been a mass exodus of officers over the last two years. I believe the police officers who are left here, are deeply committed to doing policing right. They are not the ones who took the easy way out, and left for easier policing jobs elsewhere or left to take medical pensions and so on. We're already starting off in a situation where we have deeply dedicated and deeply committed officers. From what I have met, going to roll calls and talking to them individually, they are looking for change as well, just in the same way that folks in the community are looking for change. 

Culture change itself is not a checklist of things that you do, in order to achieve it. I think it's something that begins with the police chief and personally, and how you carry yourself, and how you're present both in the community and amongst police officers. It's something you have to be very intentional to cultivate every day. You have to be sure you're lifting up the behaviors that the community expects, and values, in its police officers, but you're also holding officers accountable for when behavior steps outside what is the norm. I don't think it's anything that — culture change is not one thing that any one person can achieve, I believe it takes a team of folks together, and I believe it's something you have to constantly work to do, every day.

Q: There was a state investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights that could result in a consent decree; and it's widely expected the DOJ may issue a consent decree. How are you going to approach that — of course you've been through this — but how are you going to approach a consent decree if it does come to Minneapolis?

A: I have read the Minnesota Department of Human Rights report around policing here. And, while I'm not privy to any attorney-client privilege information between the city and the DOJ, what I can tell you is that I have a very deep experience in dealing with consent decrees in Newark, and through that I have relationships with other agencies that have dealt with consent decrees across the United States. I can tell you that it's largely the same issues that we're trying to address. It's the same issues that people feel are wrong with policing across the country, dealing with issues around search and seizure, internal affairs, disciplinary practices, use of force by police, discriminatory practices in terms of enforcement practices and so on, so nothing that could come out of a consent decree would surprise me. It's all stuff I'm familiar with what the issues are. 

And I'm also familiar with how to engage stakeholders, how to engage community, how to engage the officers, to achieve buy-in, and how to follow up and ensure that instead of just issuing policies and creating new training, that we're actually making sure that the change is real. It's certainly something that I have experience in, which is another reason why I believe I'm uniquely situated to be in this role.

RELATED: MPD presence increases downtown in first weeks of Operation Endeavor

Q: Based on your experience in Newark, how do you get officers to buy in if there is a consent decree? How do you get officers to get on board with you?

A: I think the situation in Newark is different. I think it's actually more difficult than the situation we have in Minneapolis today. We have had a mass exodus of officers, from Minneapolis in the last two years. The officers who are here are committed, and from what I've heard from them, they are looking for change as well. So, unlike that situation in Newark, there was no one in the department — a lot of folks in the community as well — no one who really believed the change would actually be even possible. I think it was a much more difficult situation to achieve buy-in but we were able to do that. You achieve buy-in largely in the same way you achieve buy-in from any other stakeholder. It's based on ensuring folks have a voice in the process, having some consistency in that relationship, and involving people so that they see that you're serious about valuing their concerns and ensuring that they're heard as well.

Q: When it comes to violent crime, a major concern in a lot of cities in America right now, the numbers are down this year [in Minneapolis] compared to last year. But they're still much higher than before the pandemic. If you take over this role, what's your plan to combat violent crime in the city?

A: Certainly, gun violence is the ultimate priority. And that is not something that can be achieved by the Minneapolis Police alone. Minneapolis Police alone cannot address that problem. So we need a wide variety of stakeholders to collaborate with us, and that involves collaborating with the U.S. Attorney's Office and all the federal law enforcement, the state and county law enforcement that are here, and also collaborating with the community. And ensuring that the police department employs not only just evidence-based practices in terms of how we police, but also that we have community-informed practices, that the community values as well. It's a situation where we need to ensure that we're doing everything possible to try to engage all of the partners as we possibly can, to save as many lives as possible. 

And the reality of that situation, no matter what city you're in, is there's a very, very small percentage of the population that is either most at-risk of committing a gun crime or being a victim of a shooting. So we have to engage and have to build relationships with communities so the Minneapolis Police can develop human intelligence that's needed to inform where these other federal resources go, to ensure we're trying to get — as quickly as possible — that small, less than one percent of the population who is out here pulling triggers, to get them off the street as quickly as possible.

Q: When you look at rebuilding this department, obviously, you're several hundred officers down from what it was before the pandemic and before the murder of George Floyd. How do you deal with a staffing shortage of that magnitude?

A: Aside from collaboration, I think the staffing shortage is an incredible opportunity to change the Minneapolis Police. I think the police officers that remain here, are officers that the community wants and that are dedicated to the mission. I think we need to engage community stakeholders to help us try and recruit as many residents from diverse communities as we possibly can, residents of this city. 

I think it's important we try and screen in the type of people who want to be police officers. It's important to not just to have financial incentives — like the mayor has put forth a plan which is needed, to ensure there is money invested in recruiting and retention of officers, which is very important and needed — but we also need communicated that this is meaningful work. If you're fed up with everything that's happened in the past and you want to actually be a part of meaningful change, that this is the place to do it. The Minneapolis Police Department, today, is the place to be a police officer and to make change real.

Q: When it comes to other matters of change and reform, Mayor Frey who nominated you has been a fierce critic of the police union. How are you going to deal with the police union if you get this job? 

A: Well, I'm not familiar with whatever issues have existed in the past with police unions. In my position in Newark, I dealt with the Fraternal Order of Police, the union for the rank-and-file police officers, and we had a great relationship. It's the same as any other relationship with any other stakeholder. There needs to be an understanding, that, sometimes we are going to disagree. 

RELATED: Mpls mayor signs new government structure into action

Sometimes I'm going to do things as the police chief that the union isn't going to like. And the same thing is true with the union. They're going to speak out and say things that I am not going to agree. But I think that most of the time, if both of our interests are truly in doing what's right for our police officers and what's right for the city, I think most of the time there's no reason why we cannot work together to try and make things better. 

Q: When it comes to Operation Endeavor — and you touched on this a bit in terms of what this department has started doing and the announcement that came out several weeks ago — what do you make of Operation Endeavor and where do you see yourself fitting into that, if you take over this role?

A: Being present in the community in the north side of town, and also just walking around here downtown last night, I heard from residents in the community here that they appreciate the increased police presence. I was at a roll call yesterday for Operation Endeavor, and I saw dozens of officers there and federal agents, and officers from the sheriff's office and others, coordinating together to try and have an impact on the most serious drivers of gun violence in the city. From what I've seen, it's an incredibly effective operation, it's something in the community, residents and folks downtown, have told me they sincerely appreciate, and it's something that I look forward to be part of.

Q: A lot of people out there watching, or in the community, they say they've heard this before and may be skeptical that change really could be possible in the Minneapolis Police Department. How do you build that trust in the community? How are you going to approach police-community relations in Minneapolis?

A: Over the last five years in my time in Newark, there is just no question that change has been made. Whether you ask folks in the community, whether you look at data, or whether you take the word of the independent monitor. The only question is the degree to how much change has actually happened. To those who may be skeptical here, I would say it is true to do both. I would say it is a fact that the only way to reduce and sustain serious reductions in street crime is to also build legitimacy in the community of the police force, and to also ensure we're doing everything to protect human rights. That's the only way forward in law enforcement today.

Q: When it comes to training specifically... in your [opening] press conference, it was interesting hearing about your philosophy on training. The trials that came out from the Floyd murder were kind of a damning indictment in many ways of the training in this department. How would you plan to overhaul training practices in the Minneapolis Police Department?

A: I'm not aware of the current status of various types of training here, but I think it's important as we move forward to do similarly to what we did in Newark. In Newark, we involved community in the process of reforming policing and then building training upon that. And it wasn't just community stakeholders and residents. We brought in a lot of critics of the police department, a lot of activists. We tapped into help from the ACLU, and other organizations, to draft policy to ensure that the community's fingerprints were actually on the policies and training of the agency. 

And then moving forward in training, you need to ensure that particularly when you're training around critical issues, it can't just be things that are sort of like PowerPoint presentations, or things that come out, electronically for folks to learn on their own. Adult learners need practical, hands-on, scenario-based training, and we need to put processes in place to ensure that officers are not tested on necessarily memorization of what's in a document, but that we're providing clear guidelines, clear rules, and providing meaningful ways for them to apply them in real-world situations. And we need to measure that. I think all those types of things, ensuring that policy and training is implement as intended, is the key to actually having change be made real.

Q: When you first heard about this job... what went through your mind?

A: Well, I thought based on the experiences that I've had, based on the feedback I have gotten from folks who literally for decades were frustrated, angry at police, who were thankful for the work that we did and to me personally, who became allies of the work that we had done in Newark. And at the same time, being able to rebuild and support the department so that the officers felt more supported in their work. I felt that I had something to offer here, I felt like this was for me. Not everyone in my life agreed with me in that particular moment. Now, I know everyone, the people who are most important to me, do. Folks, I think, thought I was a little crazy at first. But yes, I believe that I have a unique experience that's directly applicable to the situation here.

Q: There were people that thought this job would just be too hard?

A: [They] thought it was a little crazy that I'd want to get involved in such a situation. There are certainly other police departments across the country that are experiencing consent decrees, experiencing reform, that certainly don't have the same level of challenges that this city has. But, I believe that this is the center of the country around police reform and I want to be a part of making things right.

Q: Newark is no stranger to controversy... What is that like, bringing that knowledge to the table here?

A: I think in Newark, as you've mentioned, it is a city that has historically been at sort of the inflection point of all these issues. Literally for decades, people have been frustrated and angry and screaming for police reform. At the same time, Newark has dealt with very severe challenges around gun violence and serious street crime. Just as we experienced elsewhere in the country, I think a lot of people say, the only way to deal with violence is to unleash the cops. I think the experience of Newark over the last five years proves that is not true. The only way forward is to try and do these things together. And I think that's what people are looking for here in Minneapolis.

Q: With the makeup of how the city is going to work [with the new Office of Community Safety], what do you make of working not only for the mayor but also Cedric Alexander?

A: That setup may be different for people in Minneapolis. However, it's not different for me. In Newark, we have a Department of Public Safety. The Office of Community Safety here is actually more comprehensive. It brings together more of the resources that are dedicated to addressing safety in the city of Minneapolis. While it may be different for folks here, it's certainly not different for me, and I think it absolutely makes sense to better coordinate all of these services. 

Before You Leave, Check This Out