Ex-Minneapolis PD Chief Says There's 'Systemic Racism' in Police Forces

The former chief of the Minneapolis Police Department welcomed charges against the officers in the death of George Floyd and said more needed to be done to combat the "systemic racism" in police forces across the country.

Janee Harteau told Newsweek that she was horrified by the widely-circulated video showing Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, pinning down Floyd, a black man, with a knee to his neck for more than 8 minutes as he struggled to breathe.

Floyd's death, on May 25, sparked protests against police brutality in Minneapolis which quickly spread to more than 100 cities across the U.S.

Some of them erupted into violence with police officers seen deploying tear gas and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters. Arson, vandalism, looting and attacks on officers were reported in some places.

Then on Wednesday, prosecutors upgraded the charges against Chauvin to second-degree murder. They also charged three other officers involved in Floyd's death with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter..

"The charges for the other three officers are not only warranted and a critical step towards justice for George Floyd, but necessary to remind officers to hold each other accountable, first and foremost," Harteau told Newsweek. "I watched in horror and felt many of the same things that the rest of the world felt. Sadness. Anger. Numbness."

"What couldn't escape me is I've spent over 30 years of my life on police departments. I was the chief for five years. I worked side by side with community members and leaders and all I could think of was, how could this happen at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer? It made me question everything I thought I knew."

Minneapolis
The names of people killed by police is written on Chicago Avenue at a memorial for George Floyd on June 3, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Harteau expressed sympathy for the protesters, saying their outrage was "understandable" and rebuked President Donald Trump's rhetoric in recent days, saying it "makes everyone less safe."

Trump has repeatedly pushed the nation's governors to take a hard line to end the violence and sparked controversy after saying "when the looting starts, the shooting starts"—a phrase with a racist history—in a tweet.

"We need leadership to instill confidence and calm and what has been said has not been helpful and makes everyone less safe," Harteau said. "We need to strongly encourage peaceful demonstrations and create safe spaces and we need leadership at the highest level to be able to support that."

She also condemned some of the tactics used by law enforce to quell the unrest.

"We can't have officers teargassing peaceful protesters and treating them like violent rioters," she said.

"The reaction of law enforcement needs to be an appropriate response to what is occurring at the time. They're not the same thing, nor should they be. So the outrage, the concern, the anger, the sadness is absolutely understandable and we have to allow that to occur."

She maintained there is "absolutely" a problem of systemic racism in the Minneapolis Police Department and police forces across the U.S.

The Minneapolis Police Department has been contacted for comment.

Her comments come as analysis by The New York Times found black Americans in Minneapolis are seven times more likely to have force used against them by the officers than white residents.

David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, told the newspaper that he described the city as "a living laboratory on everything you shouldn't do when it comes to police use of force."

Harteau added the Minnesota Department of Human Right investigation in the police department's policies, procedures and practices over the past decade—announced by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz earlier this week—is something that needs to happen. "I certainly welcome the investigation," she said.

"Obviously given the circumstances surrounding the death of George Floyd, I think it's something that is certainly warranted to help facilitate change, to truly understand where it needs to occur."

"I would love to see national standards for all police departments," she said. "It's one of the challenges chiefs like myself have faced across the country, especially when it's in the handling of critical incidents and sharing information with the public. Some cities can share body camera footage right away, some cities have the ability to terminate officers straight away."

Harteau said she enacted policies in 2016 which have allowed her successor Medaria Arradondo, the first African-American to serve as the chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, to make the decision to terminate officers immediately.

"But there are over 18,000 police departments in this country and they operate differently. And the question is do we need 18,000 different police departments," she added. "We need national standards. We need to start over."

Harteau isn't a stranger to unrest in the wake of high-profile police killings.

The death of Jamar Clark, a black man, in 2015 sparked protests in Minneapolis. Two years later, Harteau was forced to resign as police chief after the highly publicized shooting of Justine Damond, a white woman, by a black Minneapolis police officer. She's now the president and CEO of Vitals Aware Services, a service for first responders.

The police officers who killed Clark never faced prosecution, but the black officer who shot Damond dead did.

Although Harteau said that "it's hard to put race aside," she says the Clark and Damond cases case are "vastly different." "The officers in the Clark case were found justified in the use of deadly force," she said.

Harteau added that Floyd's death was a reminder of the frustration she endured while trying to reform the the city's department during her five-year tenure as police chief.

She echoed sentiments expressed by some leaders, including former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and state Sen. Jeff Hayden, who said the city's police union has fostered a culture that protects brutal officers and resists reform.

Earlier this week, she called the union's president, Lt. Bob Kroll, a "disgrace to the badge" after he sent a letter to union members describing Floyd as a "violent criminal" and saying Chauvin and the other three officers involved in Floyd's death were "terminated without due process." Kroll could not be reached for comment.

Harteau said: "Police unions can either be a catalyst or an obstacle and they have more influence on police culture than oftentimes police chiefs because unions are permanent and outlast police chiefs."

She said that some policies in place "truly do not allow progressive police chiefs like myself to be able to enact effective change."

This time, however, she said she is hopeful. "Although hope isn't a strategy, I believe hope is what should drive us to make the necessary change to ensure this will never happen again."