Arradondo to retire; both Mpls., St. Paul looking for new chiefs

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  • Medaria Arradondo
    American police officer

Medaria Arradondo, who became Minneapolis' first Black police chief in 2017 and guided the Police Department through the worst crisis of its 154-year history, announced his retirement Monday.

"I have made the decision that I will not be accepting a new term as chief of the Minneapolis Police Department," Arradondo said during news conference. "After 32 years of service I believe that now is the right time to allow for new leadership, new perspective, new focus and new hope to lead the department forward in collaboration with our communities and I am confident that the MPD has the leadership in place to advance this critically important work that lies ahead of us."

In stepping down, Arradondo ends a three-decade career in public service, during which he gained a reputation as a personable leader who relied heavily on community input as he tried to transform a police department with a long history of racism and use of disproportionate force against Black people.

But like his predecessor, his tenure will likely be overshadowed by a controversial police killing of an unarmed civilian that cast the department into the harsh international spotlight. In Arradondo's case, it was the murder of George Floyd during an arrest outside a convenience store in May 2020, which prompted weeks of protests, the burning of a police precinct and a campaign to replace the MPD with a new public safety agency.

Arrandondo's public opposition to the change prompted an ethics complaint against him, but it likely contributed to voters' decisive rejection of that amendment. Still, the measure's defeat hasn't quieted questions about the direction of the embattled department.

Arradondo said that he will step down in mid-January. The timing means that both of Minnesota's largest cities will lose their police chiefs within the same calendar year. St. Paul Chief Todd Axtell announced last month that he would not seek reappointment when his term ends in June.

"When the people of our city hear the words public service I think they should think of Chief Arradondo and the work he has done through thick and thin through some of the most difficult moments our city has ever experienced," said Mayor Jacob Frey, who promised to announce an interim chief in the coming days and move "forward with a national search as well."

The chief declined to name which specific people he's recommending for the job, but expressed confidence in his leadership team to help guide the transition.

Arradondo's departure comes as the Minneapolis department is down hundreds of officers amid the worst violent crime surge in a generation, while confronting simultaneous state and federal investigations that could bring sweeping changes.Department leaders are seeking to mend community relations strained by the death of Floyd and others killed by police in recent years.

Frey had hoped to convince the chief to stay for another term. Arradondo said he "took to heart" the words of elders in the community and rank-and-file officers who hoped to persuade him to stay. In the end, he weighed the best interests of the department and the community but also considered "my own personal well-being."

The mayor said he learned of Arradondo's final decision Monday morning. Before the news conference, the two exchanged a hug and a handshake.

Retired Minneapolis police sergeant Lisa Clemons, a staunch supporter of Arradondo, said she understood the chief's decision to move on.

"I'm sad to see him go," said Clemons, whowas among the group of advisers asking Arradondo to stay at the helm. "This is a chief who understood the problem, a chief who was willing to work to change the problem and, I think, the attacks he suffered he didn't deserve."

"We're not saying 'don't hold the chief accountable,' but we're saying 'how can he effect change and battle y'all at the same time?' We should have joined forces with him to ensure that he was a success."

Whoever succeeds him will face a daunting task. The top cop must be prepared to address rising gun violence in the community, as well as mounting calls for police reform.

Policy changes

Arradondo oversaw a host of changes, such as tightening the department's pursuit policy after high-speed chases ended in fatalities, outfitting police with the opioid antidote Narcan and expanding procedural justice and implicit bias training for officers. He also took on issues — such as housing — that once seemed outside the scope of the office.

Even as the department he led was battered by public criticism, he remained a popular figure. A September poll found that just more than half of Minneapolis voters said they had an unfavorable view of the Police Department. Only 22% expressed an unfavorable view of Arradondo.

Frey had hitched himself to the chief during his successful reelection bid. Without Arradondo at his side, the mayor may find himself under more pressure to advance reforms, which many advocates say have stalled. Although the rise in crime has largely been confined to historically disenfranchised neighborhoods, polls show that most city residents have expressed unease about public safety, a major issue in the election.

The department has been rocked by several controversies since Floyd's death. Some questioned why more officers haven't been publicly disciplined over their conduct during the civil unrest that followed Floyd's killing. Body camera footage surfaced showing officers using militaristic tactics during the riots and discussing "hunting" protesters. And recent developments have raised the possibility of reopening the case against officers involved in the 2013 shooting death of Terrance Franklin.

A long career

Arradondo has been seen as the MPD's silver lining by some leaders in the Black community.

Growing up on the city's South Side, Arradondo was drawn to law enforcement in his teenage years, and particularly to the public service aspect of policing.

After moving to Michigan briefly for college, he returned to his hometown to take a job with the MPD in 1989, joining in a time when there were few Black faces at roll call. Over the years he climbed the ranks, spending time in Homicide and Internal Affairs units, and served as the department's spokesperson.

Like other non-white officers, Arradondo endured his share of discrimination and harassment. He and four other officers sued the department for racial discrimination, saying they were frequently passed over for promotion in favor of less-qualified white colleagues. They eventually settled the matter for $185,000.

When then-mayor Betsy Hodges announced Arradondo would succeed Janeé Harteau as chief, it was the latest chapter in his unlikely ascent. He has been demoted more than once. Supporters say Rondo, as he likes to be called, steps in to calm situations before they boil over. They point to his appearance on the TV show "COPS" in the early 1990s, when in the midst of responding to a distress call, he stopped to help an elderly woman across the street.

His first serious leadership test came about 10 months into his tenure, with the killing of Thurman Blevins, a Black man who was shot by officers in a North Side alley after a foot chase. Arradondo arrived to engage with distraught onlookers, many of whom filmed the interaction, while Blevins' body still lay on the ground. He listened to their concerns, urging witnesses to speak with investigators.

Police said the man was armed at the time, but Blevins' family and some activists argued that officers unnecessarily escalated the encounter.

Arradondo has remained visible as chief, attending barbecues and basketball games citywide. He talks with unusual bluntness about the historical mistreatment of racial minorities by police. He also gained a reputation for being a leader with a sympathetic ear, who met regularly with his critics.

He said at a forum in 2019 that his philosophy is that "public safety is not just the absence of crime, but the presence of justice." He said then that after being asked to take over the department, he sat down at his kitchen table and wrote up 12 points that he believed would help transform the department's culture.

As part of that change, he assembled a senior leadership team of officers with whom he hadn't worked before, thinking their strengths would compensate for his shortcomings.

After Hodges was ousted by Frey, Arradondo served as a key advisor for the mayor during some of the rockiest moments of his first term, when the mayor promised to clean up the department after the high-profile police killings of Jamar Clark and Justine Ruszczyk Damond.

The chief's supporters commend him for moving swiftly to address public criticism, like when he stopped the practice of undercover marijuana stings after a report by public defenders found nearly every arrest made was of a Black person. Arradondo said he understood the outrage, but also defended the practice, saying the more important question was how to fix the social conditions that lead some young Black men to selling drugs in the first place.

When a pair of North Side officers decorated the precinct's Christmas tree with racist ornaments, he moved quickly to punish the officers and their supervisors.

He also continued Harteau-era initiatives around procedural justice and sanctity of life.

Like other progressive police chiefs around the country, he had his work cut out for him, observers say. A long and growing line of reform-minded chiefs have stepped down or been fired, often after high-profile episodes of police violence. Black chiefs in Seattle and Atlanta have quit in recent years, and Baltimore is on its fifth commissioner since the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015.

Floyd's death was Arradondo's biggest test.

He was praised for firing the four officers involved in Floyd's death after watching a video of the encounter and conferring with community leaders.

In an interview with agents from the BCA and FBI, Arradondo had an "emotional reaction" upon watching the bystander video and hearing Floyd, saying it reminded him of Eric Garner, whose death after being put in a chokehold by New York police officers in 2014 became a rallying cry for police reform activists.

If anything, he said, the Floyd case was worse, because while it seemed that Garner was resisting arrest, the Minneapolis video showed officers continued to apply force even as Floyd lay prone, with his hands cuffed.

Some activists pushing for police reform pounced on what they saw as Arradondo's failure to rein in over-aggressive tactics that some say has long been the department's hallmark.

Even after Floyd's death, Minneapolis police repeatedly used militarized force against nonviolent protesters, injuring some of them and costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal settlements. Some say the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on those protesting Floyd's death is a sign of how little the department's culture has changed.

Arradondo's supporters, particularly among the traditional Black power base, saw the criticism as part of a familiar pattern of questioning the leadership ability of Black men in positions of power when the problem is decades of entrenched culture.

Arradondo visited the location where Floyd was killed. He spoke directly to Floyd's family. He pledged to cooperate with the state's probe into his department's practices and make "substantive policy changes."

While Arradondo remained popular, interviews with officers revealed a department in crisis. Beat cops complained about a lack of support and confusion around new use-of-force rules. It has led to some internal pushback, including accusations of a work slowdown and "blue flu." A day shift in the 4th Precinct several months back featured only four officers working the street.

In a department-wide email sent just before the public news conference, Arradondo praised sworn and civilian personnel for continuing to show up for the community amidst such difficult circumstances and noted that he was 'blessed' to serve among their ranks.

"The words thank you can never properly convey the immense gratitude and respect I have for you and your service especially over the past 18 months.Instead I will say stand proud," according to the email obtained by the Star Tribune. "Stand proud knowing that you have chosen one of the most honorable and noble professions that exists. ….Stand proud that when historians look back on this time you made the choice to be seen and counted to make a positive difference for our communities."

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