Rubén Rosario: A conversation with now ex-Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo

·22 min read

Jan. 23—I asked a veteran Minneapolis cop of color recently what he thought of Medaria Arradondo's tenure as police chief.

"He underwhelmed," said the cop. "I expected more."

I got a different take from another police officer I know, also of color.

"He was good. He tried," said the officer. "With the police union and political resistance, no one person can reform a culture that in many cases needs to change."

And that pretty much sums up the major camps of views on Arradondo, 54, a South Minneapolis native, 32-year police veteran and divorced father of two who announced last month that he would not seek a third term as chief. His last day in office was Jan.15.

Most newly appointed police chiefs in recent years, particularly those of color, have been promoted or elevated to the top in response to high-profile police-involved shootings, excessive-force incidents or other crises that have further frayed trust between police and communities of color. It is not that surprising that a spate of them — from Dallas to Seattle to Sacramento to now Minneapolis — have left the job in the past two years.

But arguably few have faced more challenges in a short time — the George Floyd murder, a destructive riot, a rise in violent crime, a manpower shortage and a wave of cops retiring early or leaving the force in the midst of a pandemic — than "Chief Rondo."

He became the first Black chief in the department's 155-year history following the July 2017 fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk, a white woman, by a cop of Somali descent. Public outrage and demands for accountability and substantial police reform both locally and nationally reached an unprecedented crescendo in May 2020 after the world witnessed Derek Chauvin snuffing out the life of Floyd at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue — just a few blocks from where Arradondo grew up and first dreamed of becoming a cop in his hometown.

If Chauvin and the MPD became the face of police brutality in America, Arradondo became at that moment the face of the progressively minded police chief in America. He reached out personally to Floyd's relatives. He knelt in reverence and lowered his hat as Floyd's casket passed by. He testified against one of his own at the Chauvin murder trial and he may potentially do so again in St. Paul in the federal civil rights trial of the three other former Minneapolis cops charged in Floyd's death.

He also tussled with a city council that resisted his efforts to hire more police officers and that also backed a controversial plan to essentially eliminate the police department in its present form and replace it with a vaguely detailed Department of Public Safety. A majority of Minneapolis voters rejected that plan at the ballot box in November, by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin. Some critics of the chief lambasted him for "campaigning in uniform" and partly blamed his public opposition to the proposed change for its failure at the ballot box.

He has received some praise for, among other steps, revising rules limiting high-speed pursuit chases that have resulted in deaths, eliminating low-level marijuana police stings, banning neck- and choke-hold restraints, and calling for a need to tweak union contract and arbitration agreements that in his view make it difficult to discipline officers.

Yet some Black community members and activists who aggressively lobbied for Arradondo to be named chief four years ago have expressed disappointment that he did not do enough to rein in or boot out problem cops like Chauvin. They point out the group of SWAT cops seen and heard on body-camera videos during the riots "hunting" for protesters in an unmarked white van. In one incident captured on surveillance video, they fired rubber bullets at and kicked and punched a protester, Jaleel Stallings, a St. Paul truck driver and Army veteran, after Stallings fired his licensed firearm at the van in self-defense. Stallings, who said he was not aware that the shooters inside the vehicle were cops and feared they might be white-supremacist vigilantes, was charged with several counts of attempted murder. He was acquitted in October after a jury trial. He has filed a civil lawsuit against a city that has paid out a combined $47 million alone in out-of-court settlements in the Ruszczyk and Floyd deaths.

Although an internal affairs probe was launched, none of the cops in the Stallings case have reportedly faced any discipline. There are also underway separate city and federal civil rights probes into whether the Minneapolis Police Department historically engaged and still now engages in a pattern of discrimination and excessive force. The results of those probes, including a possible consent decree, could lead to substantial reform changes.

But Arradondo's popularity with most residents, particularly those who live in neighborhoods most affected by a surge in homicides not seen in a generation and other violent crime, is without question.

A Star Tribune poll conducted last September found that more than half of Minneapolitan respondents had an unfavorable view of the scandal-scarred department. Yet, only 22 percent had an unfavorable view of Arradondo.

"He has done his service," former city council member and longtime North Minneapolis resident Don Samuels told a local TV station after news broke about the chief's retirement in early December. "He took us through the toughest of times and was an anchor in the storm for the psyche of the city."

He apparently has fans on this side of the river as well.

"Hey, good to see you. How are you doing?" is how Mychael Wright, co-owner of Golden Thyme Coffee & Cafe on Selby Avenue, greeted Arradondo last week as we met for what turned out to be an hourlong chat — excerpted in the Q&A below — on his tenure and other topics. Arradondo stressed that he will not consider another police chief position anywhere or elected office as he explores other career offers and opportunities.

Q: Why did you leave?

A: It was just time. You reflect on the organization. You reflect that leadership does have a shelf life. And you are always wanting to prepare your team to take on that role. And truly, after much reflection, I felt that now was the time.

Q: So there was no personality clash within the department or with the city council, which was up your butt quite a bit ...

A: (Laughs) That's a very good way of putting it. But no. My dear friend Chief Axtell (St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell) has also announced his retirement and I don't think most police chiefs plan and say, OK, two terms, three terms, four terms. I think you have to know when it is right for the organization, when it's right for the city and when it's right for you personally.

Q: In the old days, police chiefs usually had a longer run. What has changed?

A: That's if everything is going well ...

Q: True.

A: I think the landscape of being a police chief has changed in this country — some of it for the good. There is a lot more transparency measures put in place. There is a lot more balance put on the leadership of the police chief. And I think there is also a lot more accountability than there has ever been for police chiefs, both internal and in terms of who the police chief reports to, elected officials and a lot more to the communities. The communities today, more than decades ago, don't allow you as a chief to just finish your term.

Q: You get your evaluation daily ...

A: Daily. And so the tenure for most big-city chiefs is about 3 1/2 years and that's if everything goes right ... you cannot perform the duties of a police chief in the middle of the road. You have to be all in. And that's been for the better. Unfortunately, to some degree, the role of the police chief has been politicized. Everything in this country has been politicized so much. The one thing that I caution to cities is that when they deal with public safety, not to look at absolutes.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: Too often we see it in all aspects, whether it's political, whether it's decisions, activist decisions, too often I've seen over the last several years that people operate within the confines of their own tribes, and they tend to hunker down in absolutes, and certainly the world, and the world of public safety, is not absolute. We saw one example of that in Minneapolis where there were some voices that were speaking for the masses, and there is no community that I have seen since I've been on this Earth that is monolithic.

Q: You are talking about the Black community?

A: I'm talking about our Black and brown communities. While public safety is certainly important to them, and we have seen unfortunate disparities in all aspects of social life, their thoughts, their opinions, their ideas, their solutions ... they are not monolithic. You cannot place it in one neatly wrapped bowl. And I think that we have to be mindful of that as we move forward. My belief: If we are to have substantive, real change, you cannot operate in the confines of absolutes. You just cannot.

Q: There was a group of community activists and members who pushed for you to become chief and even marched down to City Hall after Janeé Harteau (Arradondo's predecessor) resigned following the Ruszczyk case. Is that group still solidly behind you or is there friction there?

A: The one thing that I have seen throughout my own personal journey within the MPD is that it's relationship-centered, and in any relationship, it's just not conditional that we are going to agree to everything you do every day, and there's going to be things that come up in the relationship that will challenge a relationship. But the important thing is that you continue to keep working on it. So, hopefully, those that are truly in that circle that know me know that whether we agree or disagree, I've always stayed to work at that relationship. As chief, you are not chief to a monolithic group. You are chief to the entire community regardless of where people stand on a political or policy issue. As chief, you have to lead by principled public safety always, every day.

I've been blessed that being a kid and a product of Minneapolis, there's never been a day that I thought that my community did not support me. They may not always have agreed with certain things as I came into the role of police chief, but there's never been a day when they didn't believe that I was trying to do the right thing at the end of the day.

Q: You were among five high-ranking Black police officers in 2003 who sued the MPD for discrimination (a $740,000 out-of-court settlement was reached without any admission of guilt). I presume you felt there was systematic racism in the police department at that time. Am I right?

A: I felt that there were things within the organization that needed to be changed. I think that it needed to have a deep-dive assessment and review. ... There were good things that came from that.

Q: Like what?

A: Training in general. The Police Community Relations Council was formed (part of a federal mediation agreement between the MPD and the Department of Justice). There was a 30-page memorandum of agreement that still stands today. Even to this day, I've heard from other law enforcement officials throughout the country about it. How we recruit. How we retain officers. Promotions. There was a lot of good that came from it.

Q: And yet, 18 years later, your department, the department you always dreamed of joining and becoming chief, essentially became the face of police brutality in America. What impact did that have on you professionally and personally?

A: I think that you do the right thing. We instill that value in our officers from day one when we are interviewing them as candidates. We instill that value when they are going through the academy. We reinforce that as they are going through their career. You do what you believe to your core is the right thing.

I believe the vast majority of the men and women in the department serve honorably. They come to work but those are not the stories you get to see and hear. We and unfortunately St. Paul, our sister city, have experienced a significant increase in violent crime in recent years. Our officers, amid all the dynamics that have taken place, are still rushing to the scene, putting tourniquets on folks to keep them alive. They are rushing children who have been wounded to hospitals, to not waste precious seconds to keep them alive. From a professional standard, I've been so very proud to see how they continue to show up and they continue to hold that oath that they took close to their heart.

Q: Tracie Keesee, a veteran retired cop in Denver and co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity, was quoted saying that "it's troubling that the public expects Black police chiefs to change the culture within four years or overnight." Is that an accurate statement?

A: Again, I think for some, there are absolutes. Because many in our Black and brown communities have such high expectations, and wanting change overnight, oftentimes when you are a chief of color, that expectation is placed upon you from day one.

Q: But given the history of the MPD, is that expectation a fair one?

A: If you look at it from an industry standpoint, I don't think there's an industry operating on the planet that changes its culture overnight. It takes time. It has to be deliberate. Most leaders will tell you, at least the road map that they seek to create, will never be accomplished in their time. We should not go in thinking that it will change overnight just because there is a chief of color. So I think that statement is fair and representative. That doesn't mean that chiefs of color don't feel the urgency of trying to accomplish things right away. Again, chiefs of police are serving their entire communities and each community is very different. Homelessness, mental health, opioid addiction. There are lots of things that impact public safety that a chief, regardless of their color, cannot solve on their own.

Q: It seems police chiefs of color are thrust into the job after a controversial police shooting or crisis. Are they also given the support and resources to do the job?

A: They are only as good as, number one, the trust they engender with the community, and, two, the support they get from (elected officials). If they don't have that, I don't care who you are, it's going to create a very challenging time to serve people.

Q: What are you most proud of during your tenure as chief?

A: First and foremost, over the last two years, seeing men and women — mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers — under a great deal of adversity showing up every day to do that job. I can't thank the men and women of the MPD enough.

Another thing I'm very proud of is raising (awareness) about not only trauma in our community but also the impact trauma has among first responders and peace officers and for our department, our health and wellness and peer support teams, to provide so much support for our police officers, and their families.

I'm proud of the fact that we rolled out what I call the people's data — public dashboards where now community members — regardless of what neighborhood they are in — can at the touch of a button can see what our services look like in real time, from traffic stops to disturbance calls, to demographic information.

Q: How many officers are you short?

A: If you recall a few years ago, I went in front of the (city) council and asked for several hundred officers, but I would say we are at least 300 officers short.

Q: Out of a force of what, 800, 900?

A: Yes.

Q: How many did you get?

A: Fourteen, I believe. We talk about support and resources ...

Q: I asked you before about your discrimination lawsuit back in 2003. Is there systemic racism in the Minneapolis Police Department right now?

A: (Long pause) We are a police department that has made considerable progress over the past three decades since I joined the department. I pause because we have individuals in the organization that are doing everything they can to dismantle any sorts of barriers that would lend themselves to be racism, sexism, you name it. Racism exists in our society and no industry is immune to it and its debilitating effects.

The MPD has done considerable work in focusing on every facet of the organization from hiring, training, promotions to retention to root out any forms of discrimination that keeps us from being our best self. That work will and needs to be ongoing. The MPD will continue to learn, evolve and be the best as an agency. We for the first time in our history rewrote the oath of office with the collaboration of our local NAACP and the Urban League. We are doing things in terms of pre-employment and psychologist assessments. We are doing things in terms of health and wellness to make sure we are getting the right folks in, keeping them healthy and well while they are on here. We are out reaching to the communities so communities not only have a say in how they want to be served but what our policies look like.

Q: One of the criticisms against you that pops up is that you did not red-flag enough problem officers like Chauvin, who had a list of misconduct complaints and allegations before the George Floyd incident. What's your response?

A: I've heard that criticism. That is also part of the transparency and accountability to our public that we need to have and that will continue. One is that we have to do a better job of educating our public about what the disciplinary process looks like. There remains a large portion of our community that doesn't fully understand the complaint process. Officers can get and receive complaints. Just because they receive complaints does not necessarily create some sort of nexus to something major occurring.

The other thing the MPD is doing is setting in place state-of-the-art performance mechanism tools that can help with officer performance early. I went before the City Council two years ago to ask for funding for an upgrade to the department's early intervention system (EIS). Unfortunately the city council did not approve my request at that time. What EIS does is that it's a digital automated system. It doesn't matter if your supervisor transfers to another assignment for example and it flags certain performance criteria ... again this is to help improve employee performance. EIS is not a disciplinary tool. It's a tool used to improve employee performance and readily identify when certain performance measures are not being met. I'm so thankful that the most recent request for an EIS upgrade just got passed in the mayor's budget.

To me, the most influential person in an employee's performance day to day is that front line supervisor and the MPD will continue to pay attention to that front line supervisor and the role they are playing while providing them the training and support they need.

Q: The criticism is that the MPD dropped the ball when it came to Chauvin, that they should have flagged him before it ever came to that encounter with George Floyd. You don't agree with that?

A: I've heard the number (of complaints) a lot. The 18 times. When some have mentioned that number to me what they often can't tell you are what were the complaints for. Again I believe this touches on the MPD and the Office of Police Conduct and Review continuing to educate and bring awareness to the complaint process. Complaints can vary in degree from something minor to something egregious. I know the MPD takes those matters seriously regardless of the degree. When those matters are brought to our attention we have an obligation to those we serve to review and investigate those complaints professionally and thoroughly.

Q: What was the most challenging period of your tenure as chief? Was it the riots?

A: I would say yes. Without a doubt.

Q: What did you learn from that experience?

A: With all of the good work that the men and women do, (the relationship between police and the communities) is fragile. Very fragile. We are all interconnected with each other. Every single day. Every day.

I also learned about resiliency. Resiliency in people. Resiliency in our community, which I've been humbled and amazed at and by.

I've also learned the importance of having young people — their voices at the table. Far too often, we overlook that. I think they need to be front and center guiding these conversations as we move forward. Hope and optimism. Our children watch us. They watch the news. They watch our words. They watch our actions and they model that.

I continue to be hopeful and optimistic that we can learn from these things. I believe we can move forward and I believe we will have brighter and better days ahead for the city.

Q: You publicly opposed, in uniform, the ballot initiative that would have eliminated the police chief position and the police force as presently formed in favor of a Department of Public Safety. The city council filed an ethics complaint against you days before the election, a decision that I frankly thought would backfire and actually galvanize more opposition to the measure. A majority of Minneapolis residents ultimately voted down the proposed change. Why were you opposed to it?

A: The most consequential election in our city that ever occurred, for me to have not, as chief, to have not openly and honestly shared my thoughts about the possible impact that could have, would have been unethical and in my mind, immoral for me to remain silent. And so I had an obligation to speak out about that.

Where else would you ever find a situation where, if tomorrow, they were talking about eliminating the fire department — not a plan of what happens after that — that chief, to not at least be acknowledged? I did not bring it up and put that on a ballot. I want and continue to believe that the police department should be as apolitical as it possibly can. Unfortunately, there were forces at play that made the police department a political subject ...

Q: So it wasn't a self-preservation move on your part — "Oh no, they are going to eliminate my position"?

A: Oh no. Not at all. It would have been purely a dereliction of my duty and my oath. When I was chief, every week I saw the homicide stats and the final crime stats in our city and I report those out. Policymakers have those same stats as well. Sadly and tragically, the numbers haven't changed over the years: Eight out of 10 of the victims of violent crimes in Minneapolis look like me. Eight out of the 10 persons who pull the trigger look like me.

But I also know in talking to those communities, they weren't telling me we need less police, or we don't need any police. They were saying we need more. We need to continue to work and improve upon the Minneapolis Police Department. But any notion that we need less, or work in hypotheticals, they were not telling me that.

So, again, I believe it would have been a severe dereliction of my oath of office and as chief to not be honest and candid with the citizens of Minneapolis.

Q: So they never consulted you?

A: Never. ... The ballot was never going to change or address the violence that was going on in our communities. And that, from hearing from the community, that was their focus. How do I keep my children safe when they are playing in their yards? Or when they are jumping on a trampoline? Or when they are in the back seat of a car, or at McDonald's, from getting shot? I wasn't hearing anything that would positively change and keep our community safe. I wasn't hearing that. If there's a plan, I haven't seen it yet.

Q: Some people feel that you are bailing out at the wrong time, a time of the pandemic, after Floyd, the violent crime uptick. You still have the mistrust of the police department, the ongoing probes of whether there's a pattern of racism and discrimination and excessive force. How do you respond to critics who say you are leaving at the worst possible time?

A. While I love my community, the notion of Rondo sticking around forever is not realistic. And change can be good. The worst thing we can do is think that any one person can please everyone and make everything good for everyone ...

This work of service should never be about one individual. It would be the worst thing to believe that I, somehow now, am going to successfully make everyone happy during a pandemic and all of these other things, that as long as I am here that everything is going to be fine. I think that that is unrealistic and I think what we need to do is to continue to look upon this work collectively. I feel very strongly that we have the leadership in place and believe Interim Police Chief Amelia Huffman is going to do a phenomenal job.

Q: You support her for chief?

A: Absolutely. She's a wonderful leader.