Embattled Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges is turning to a veteran city cop to try to right the ship for the city’s police department in the aftermath of this month's fatal shooting by an officer of an unarmed Australian woman.
Even before the shooting of Justine Damond, the issue of the Minneapolis Police Department’s use of deadly force had been a drag on Hodges — who faced fierce criticism in the aftermath of the controversial 2015 police shooting of Jamar Clark by Minneapolis police that led to an 18-day occupation by protesters outside a north side police station.
Now, Hodges — who faces a crowded field of contenders in her November re-election bid — has picked Assistant Chief Medaria Arradondo, a 28-year veteran of the force from a fifth generation African-American Minnesota family, to help lead the police force and make the case that she’s committed to reforming the department.
“It’s got good optics, but we’re still a long way from the election,” Larry Jacobs, a political analyst at the University of Minnesota, said of the Arradondo pick. “It’s not entirely clear that this is going to be credited to Betsy Hodges and lead to the lessening of the intense animosity Betsy has been receiving from some progressives and voters in communities of color.”
Damond, who was fatally shot by Officer Mohamed Noor, was white. But the circumstances of the July 15 shooting have triggered anger in the city’s black community, including some residents who say the incident reflects their long-held position that the department needs a dynamic overhaul. Both Noor and his partner, Matthew Harrity, were wearing body cameras at the time of the shooting, but neither turned them on during the incident.
The 40-year-old meditation instructor had called 911 after hearing what she thought might have been a sexual assault in the alley outside her apartment. She was fatally shot by Noor as she apparently approached the squad car. An attorney for Harrity said that it was "reasonable" that the officers may have feared they were targeted for an ambush.
When Hodges announced the resignation of Chief Janeé Harteau and her appointment of Arradondo on Friday, she was interrupted by dozens of angry protesters who called on her to resign as well. Hodges told reporters following the encounter with protesters that she would not step down. Her selection of Arradondo still needs to be approved by the full city council before becoming official.
“What we witnessed is a police force that’s completely out of control and has been for a very long time,” said Raeisha Williams, who is running for city council in north Minneapolis and is a critic of Hodges and the police department’s policing of African-American residents. “They just shot the wrong person to make everybody wake up.”
Arradondo, who is known as “Rondo,” has climbed the ladder over his long MPD career that’s included stints as a school resource officer, beat cop and internal affairs investigator. He served as a deputy chief and chief of staff under his predecessor Harteau. He was just elevated to the role of assistant chief in April.
He’s also been a critic of the department. Arradondo and four other officers sued the city in 2007, alleging they were victims of system racial discrimination and a hostile working environment. He and his co-plaintiffs, who received a $740,000 settlement, argued that black cops were offered fewer training and overtime opportunities than their white colleagues.
Spokesmen for Arradondo and Hodges declined to make either available for an interview for this article. But Hodges praised Arradondo in an interview with the Associated Press on Saturday for his ability to build relationships with both his fans and critics.
"What's needed at this time is someone who is good at making change and helping usher people through change, which Arradondo has done and is doing," Hodges told the AP.
The police department has bolstered training for its officers in recent years, focusing on community policing. The city has also spent about $2 million to study and implement a body camera policy. But a Minneapolis television station reported earlier this month that officers were uploading on average only five to six hours footage for the month of March.
Hodges' political fortunes have languished from the fallout of the 2015 Jamar Clark shooting by Minneapolis police, said Jacobs, the University of Minnesota political analyst. Studies have found that the city is hampered by hyper racial segregation and the state of Minnesota has among the worst financial inequality among races in the nation.
At least 10 candidates have announced their intent to challenge Hodges in the November mayor race in which police shootings have become a “flash point,” Jacobs said.
“Pretty much everything else about Minneapolis is going well,” said Jacobs, noting the city’s building boom, relatively low unemployment rate and redevelopment of some of the city’s older manufacturing districts. “You look at that you’d think, ‘Wow, voters are going to be happy with this mayor.’ Not so. She’s having a hard time and is in the fight for her political career.”
Clark, who was black, was shot by police during an encounter in which officers were responding to a call from paramedics that Clark was interfering with them as they tried to aid a domestic assault victim.
During a struggle with police, one of the officers said Clark's hand reached for his gun. The officer's partner reportedly warned Clark to release the weapon and Clark allegedly replied, "I'm ready to die” before he was shot in the head.
Some witnesses alleged that Clark was handcuffed when he was shot. Federal investigators, however, concluded that was not the case.
The incident spurred days of sustained unrest in which protesters occupied the area around the department’s fourth precinct. During the protests, officers used force on multiple occasions. Some demonstrators alleged they were hit and poked with batons by officers as they held up a tarp to prevent mace from getting into their eyes. In another incident, 51 protesters were arrested when they marched on I-94 and locked arms, blocking the five-lane highway.
A Justice Department review of the city and police handling of the Clark protests was sharply critical of Hodges' and Harteau’s handling of the unrest.
The report concluded city officials — including Hodges and Harteau — “lacked a coordinated political, tactical and operational response to the protests, demonstrations and occupation of the Fourth Precinct police station.” Hodges acknowledged following the publication of the report that “communication fell short” and vowed to make “amends.”
Linea Palmisano, the city council member who represents the ward where Damond was fatally shot, praised Arradondo’s work for the department. But she said that it may be best for the city to look beyond its ranks as it goes about making changes.
“Maybe we also need to look outside the police department given the kinds of things I’m hearing this week,” Palmisano told KARE-TV.
But Williams, the north Minneapolis city council candidate, said Arradono is the type of leader the department needs — one who understands the city and state’s complicated racial divide.
“We call this the Jim Crow North,” Williams said. “Somebody coming from outside, even if it’s an African-American … it’s going to take them too long to understand the cultural dynamic and how it works before they can make change. Arradondo is from here. He knows what that looks like.”