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New police chiefs in Minneapolis, St. Paul will navigate unique challenges

Minneapolis hired an outside candidate to create change, while St. Paul hired an insider who knows the department well.

MINNEAPOLIS — The Twin Cities are navigating a new era of policing -- together.

On Thursday, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously confirmed Brian O'Hara as the next police chief, putting its faith in an external candidate from Newark, New Jersey, to remake the police department after the murder of George Floyd. O'Hara is the first chief hired from outside MPD in nearly two decades.

"I'm not here," O'Hara said at a news conference, "to maintain the status quo."

Also this week, in neighboring St. Paul, Mayor Melvin Carter nominated longtime Saint Paul Police Department veteran Axel Henry as the next police chief, subject to council approval later this month. Henry, who has risen the ranks over the past 24 years from police officer to commander, grew up in St. Paul and attended public schools in the city.

"Success leaves clues. We know how to do it," Henry said. "And we do it together."

Although the two police chiefs are different on the surface, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Jeff Potts sees similarities in the tasks ahead.

"I think both chiefs -- one being an insider in St. Paul, one being an external chief -- are both going to come in and be really focused on trying to address gun violence in both cities," Potts said. "And both cities are trying to address staffing issues. It will be interesting to see how both of those chiefs try to address those issues very quickly."

Potts, the former Bloomington Police Chief, said both O'Hara and Henry will focus in these early weeks on filling out their command staffs. He can more closely relate to Henry's position in St. Paul, having been an internal candidate in Bloomington.

"I was a commander, then became a police chief, really jumping two ranks," Potts said. "And there's a lot to learn. A lot to learn about being a police chief opposed to someone being on the command staff."

That learning curve will be even steeper for O'Hara, who was born and raised in New Jersey. Since arriving in Minneapolis, O'Hara said he's already been meeting with community members in North Minneapolis, Cedar-Riverside and South Minneapolis, and he's also met with police officers on ride-alongs and during roll calls.

However, O'Hara was selected partly because of his experience overseeing a Department of Justice consent decree in Newark, which is likely to come to Minneapolis at the conclusion of an ongoing federal investigation. 

"That experience will really help him come in with a game plan," Potts said, while adding: "It's a completely different environment, a new landscape for him. And I know it will take him just a little while to learn how things work in Minnesota and how they're different from New Jersey."

Once they're up and running in Minneapolis and St. Paul, O'Hara and Henry will have to work closely with each other as the leaders of neighboring jurisdictions.

"The chiefs of police in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, for as long as I can remember, have always had a really good relationship," Potts said. "I would expect that to continue."

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