In Conversation with Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara

Brian O’Hara retired in October. After 20-plus years policing in Newark, New Jersey—where he worked his way  from patrol officer to public safety director to, ultimately, deputy mayor—a milieu of  officers, community activists, and political leaders gathered to celebrate the 43-year-old. But unlike most officers who turn in their badges, O’Hara’s next stop wasn’t an easy chair and a pension; it was a flight to Minneapolis to begin police career two.

Now here, O’Hara’s settling into the North Loop—a neighborhood he says he loves for all the dining options and its proximity to his new office. But it’s not like he’s spent all that much time there yet. The new chief, who made a name for himself reforming a department with many of the same issues as his new one, has been making the rounds to precincts, going on ride-alongs, wooing the city council, and meeting with community leaders.

A week before his confirmation vote with the Minneapolis City Council (O’Hara would go on to be unanimously confirmed), he meets us at Giulia in downtown’s Hotel Emery. Over a double espresso with Splenda, the soft-spoken O’Hara talks about how what he helped do in Newark and aspires to do in Minneapolis compare, why he thinks the over-proliferation of guns in America is part and parcel of the over-proliferation of violence, and why the unique challenge of fixing the MPD has kept him out of that recliner—at least for now.

Why this job?

I believe that all the experiences personally and professionally have guided me toward coming here at this moment in time. I worked for 21 years as a Newark police officer, and that’s a city that has historically had very significant challenges around gun violence and serious crime, but also around police-community relations. The last several years, I’ve been intimately involved in the reform process, the consent decree process, bringing about change in terms of how officers train and perform around search and seizure, use of force, civilian oversight of the department, internal affairs practices, and so on.

Issues that aren’t dissimilar to what’s at play here.

All of these issues that people think are wrong with policing in the United States. But also, I’ve been in a position where we’ve been able to collaborate with both law enforcement partners and community-based organizations to try and drive down violent crime in a meaningful way. Often, people think those are two ideas that are diametrically opposed: that either police need to be unleashed to deal with all this violence or police need to be held accountable and address issues around human rights. I think that the experience I’ve lived through proves that you can do both.

How did a Newark lifer’s name get thrown into the hat for a gig in Minneapolis?

Well, from literally the first moment I knew that this position was available, I knew in my gut that this is the job for me. And initially, people I trust and who are much smarter than me were taken aback by me saying that. People think of the fact that so many police officers have left here. People think of the terrible things that happened not only to George Floyd but in the aftermath. And people see this as a dramatically challenging situation, which it is, but also with that, I think it’s an incredible opportunity. Particularly because the work that I did around police reform in Newark and helping build and support community-based violence prevention is probably the most meaningful work I’ve done in my life.

Can you talk more about your connection to that work?

Establishing legitimate allies and partnerships with people, particularly folks who have been advocating for reform, in some cases literally for decades, and having just been angry and frustrated with the Newark Police Department for never even having been heard. Going through the reform process with those folks, helping folks who had been involved in street life build and establish legitimacy around community-based violence prevention work. That all created incredible allies for me. Last week I had a retirement party, a send-off, and I’d say at least half the room, if not a majority, were folks from the community. So, I think there’s an incredible opportunity here. I’m not naïve enough to think that it’s not a totally different context. However, there’s nothing about the root of these issues that’s unfamiliar to me.

I think it’s important in diverse cities that the police departments become increasingly diverse to reflect the communities they serve.

— Brian O’Hara

There is deep frustration with policing here, but also, I think, a sense that people wish they didn’t have to be so frustrated.

I’ve seen that on the Northside. In a community that’s probably among those most affected by violence, they absolutely just want good police. They want police that are going to be respectful, are going to behave in a way that reflects the values of their community.

That partly comes down to who exactly you’re recruiting to the force, right?

I think traditionally, police departments take whoever applies and then eventually screen people out. But I think what needs to happen is we need to be very intentional about trying to screen the right people in and very intentional about trying to conduct outreach to residents of the city and trying to get them to become police officers here.

Currently not many officers who wear a Minneapolis uniform live in Minneapolis, or even particularly close to it.

I think it’s important as we try to move forward that we be very intentional about trying to get as many residents from the city as possible to become police officers and to do so because they want to be a part of making things right and see this as a rewarding and meaningful career to be able to do something positive in the community. Again, going back to those communities that are most affected not only by crime and violence, they’re also most affected by policing. They’re not asking for all that much, man. They just want a police officer that actually cares about their needs, their issues, and is respectful to them.

Can they find that when a certain subset of MPD officers seem to have an open animosity for the people they’re tasked with protecting and serving, whether they show that in their policing or in whose political rally they’re participating?

I think the main issue with policing is not necessarily policies that are bad; it is around the culture. And I think it’s important in diverse cities that the police departments become increasingly diverse to reflect the communities they serve just to ensure that we do have cultures that are open and more understanding and that are able to police the diverse communities that we have.

How do you accomplish that?

I go to community meetings; I meet different stakeholders, different leaders in the community, particularly those who are doing work around young people. In a lot of these neighborhoods, the only time young people see the police is in some negative situation. So, it is incredibly important for us to be intentional about engaging, particularly around younger groups of people, so they can see the police department here in a different light.

Your work in Newark had a lot to do with empowering people who weren’t police.

If we are truly about trying to save people’s lives, then we need to embrace every partner, every stakeholder we can to try and do something about that, regardless of their past. And I think the challenge has been twofold: police not wanting to associate with or be involved with violence interrupters who may have had a criminal past of their own, but also, these groups don’t want to be seen to be an arm of the police because then they lose total credibility, and that actually endangers their safety. So it took a couple of years, but Newark has some very robust programs. Newark Community Street Team is one—the city’s own Office of Violence Prevention is another—where they have folks who are high-risk interventionists who can respond to a scene.

You often isolate gun violence when discussing crime.

Looking at gun violence as a public health issue, gun violence is an urgent problem—there are people dying and bleeding every day. And yes, we need other investments into the community to fix the causes of crime. And yes, we need the community to be involved to prevent future acts and so on. But violence arises because of all these other historic problems, all these different types of concentrated disadvantage and injustice. And yes, there needs to be this investing, but if the police are not there to respond right now when something happens, we’re putting people’s lives even more at risk. We’re not recognizing that the element of gun violence is the linchpin that holds all that other stuff together.

Consequently, the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus aren’t big fans.

Yeah. I’ve heard.

That’s because you’re doing something that makes them uncomfortable: saying a big part of the problem is the guns themselves.

I mean, guns are the tools that are used in shootings.

And there are a lot of them these days.

It’s just a fact that gun violence exploded in this country as the pandemic happened. There was just an explosion in the number of guns in circulation in the United States. Legal gun sales went through the roof all across the country. And we noticed in Newark, as well as in other places around the country, that crime guns now were showing up closer in time from their initial legal purchase to when they were ultimately used in a crime—the amount of time was decreasing. At the same time, the volume of guns in general was exploding in the population. So, I mean, that’s evidence that even just legal sales have an effect on the supply of guns available to be used in crimes. That’s how these things happen. And there are other problems now that are compounding this issue. It’s not just store purchases and stolen handguns showing up in crimes; we have a problem now with ghost guns, unserialized firearms.

And when people who shouldn’t have guns have them, it makes your job more difficult and less safe, right?

It makes everybody less safe. It’s about people who should not have them being able to get them easier because there’s so many in circulation. I’m talking about convicted felons, people convicted of domestic violence, juveniles. All these folks should not have them, and I think everybody should be able to agree to that.

As Newark’s deputy chief overseeing training, you were critical of paramilitary-style training.

I think the biggest force that we’re up against there is the culture internally. It’s something that has to be on the chief’s mind, on the command staff’s mind, every day—“What type of behaviors are we rewarding on a daily basis?” Think about it this way: Traditionally, in policing, someone gets into a shooting or some dramatic situation; the officer gets awards and is recognized. But when the officer gets into an equal potentially deadly situation, but it’s successfully de-escalated, we have to make sure that behavior is rewarded as well. And a lot of times situations resolve themselves and officers do not have to use any force, and frankly, nobody hears about it because it looks like nothing happened. So, internally, we have to make sure that the officers are being rewarded when nothing happens because they were successful in de-escalating.

Did you embrace the task of being a reformer in Newark?

At first, I was forced to deal with the police reform because the mayor appointed me to do it. I had no choice; I was forced to do it. Not a job I wanted to do.

Ha. I imagine. They had been trying to get things done for about a year, and it was such a mess because no one internally believed that this was even possible, and there was just no support in the department. And we involved community, and so on, and gradually started to build support from the officers. But what has to happen once you actually start implementing these changes is you have to have a mechanism in place to provide a check. And it doesn’t mean that everybody needs to get hit over the head when they make a mistake, but people need to know from the beginning that if they’re failing to do what’s required by policy, somebody’s going to notice and it’s going to be brought to your attention, and then the next time it could result in discipline. And that process gradually helped push the momentum in the correct direction.

Will that job be harder or easier as an outsider? I think it is going to be easier because Newark is, I would think, in a lot of ways like Minneapolis—a big small town, right? So the police department, the community people knew me because I was there. Here, nobody knows me, and what I’ve heard every single time I go [to a precinct] is that these officers are looking for something different; they’re looking for change. They could take the easy way out and try to leave, go to another department, resign on a medical retirement, so on. I believe that these officers are committed to the city. That’s why they’re remaining here, and I think that’s something that we need to try and exploit. Because I think a lot of the reforms that can be made can be made by involving the officers themselves—explaining, “This is how this is going to make your job easier and make you safer.” And to show them that they will be supported when they’re doing things the right way.

Was is hard to leave Newark? I feel like what I just went through, leaving home with everyone saying goodbye—that’s the stuff that matters most to me. It’s just very powerful; it’s very moving. Especially—you have a lot of people stand up that are activists, people from the community. I’ve never heard of a police retirement where you have activists and people who literally used to protest the police coming, and people from community clergy and so on, and just saying such incredibly touching things. It’s pretty awesome.

You’re wearing a suit with a Minneapolis Police pin on the lapel. Are you excited to get back in a uniform?

Yes. So much easier to figure out what you’re going to wear in the morning.

Best of luck wearing it.

I’m going to give everything to it, believe me.

Three things about Brian O’Hara

  1. He had only been to Minneapolis once before, for a conference in August 2019—the Newark mayor, Ras Baraka, gave a presentation on their community-based violence prevention work.
  2. At first, his wife, Wafiyyah, will remain in Newark, where she’s a sergeant with the Newark Police Department. The plan is to visit every other weekend.
  3. He moved from one force with a $200 million budget to another. And while MPD’s 750 sworn officers doesn’t match Newark’s 1,000, 1,000 is MPD’s goal. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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