Community reacts to new police chief

Janee Harteau is the first female police chief of Minneapolis.

New police chief Janee Harteau, center, and Mayor R.T. Rybak, right, speak between congratulations from city council members, citizens and other officers Dec. 4 at Minneapolis City Hall.

Emily Dunker

New police chief Janee Harteau, center, and Mayor R.T. Rybak, right, speak between congratulations from city council members, citizens and other officers Dec. 4 at Minneapolis City Hall.

by Jessica Lee

Duluth, Minn., native Janee Harteau broke barriers last week.

Last Tuesday she was sworn in as Minneapolis’ chief of police after serving on the force for nearly 26 years. She’s the first female police chief and also the first to be openly gay.

Community members have celebrated that she’s the first female in the position but don’t want her demographics to overshadow her skills.

“It’s obviously very important symbolically to have somebody in that role who is different from the white male who traditionally carries that position,” said Joe Soss, a University of Minnesota professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Soss is an expert in race and gender studies and their influence on politics and organizations.

He said just because Harteau has characteristics that are different from a traditional police chief, people shouldn’t assume there will be huge changes within the department.

“I think this is something to celebrate, but on the other hand, I don’t think people should expect the operation of the police department to change.”

John Stiles, spokesman for Mayor R.T. Rybak, said Harteau is well-suited for the job as she offers both an “inside and outside perspective” because she’s overcome challenges “based on her background and her own experience in the department.”

“I think as a woman pioneering, who faced her own challenges 15 to 20 years ago as a woman in the department, she understands what it is like,” Stiles said.

Shane Zahn, director of SafeZone Operations, has worked with Harteau to merge the police department and his organization, creating the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District, an initiative to improve public safety downtown.

Touting Harteau’s abilities, Zahn said it doesn’t matter whether “you’re a woman or a man; it comes from great leadership skills, and that’s what Janee brings to the table.”

Harteau’s success in overcoming adversity has inspired a lot of people, specifically other female officers, to pursue leadership roles, said Jason Reimer, who worked with the new chief in Minneapolis’ first precinct.

Reimer said he’s happy Rybak picked Harteau for the position.

“It makes us feel better than if the mayor’s office just went outside and picked somebody from another stage or police department,” Reimer said. “It really makes our police department happy that we have candidates that are good enough to fill this role — an officer can move up through the ranks.”

City Councilman Cam Gordon, who also worked with Harteau in the first precinct, said he’s noticed Harteau’s motivation for years.

“I think she will carry on those skills as chief,” said Gordon, who represents the University area on the council.

Soss said Harteau, who is of Native American and French-Canadian descent, is a “real testament” to people who have fought for equality but that her appointment demonstrates work still needs to be done.

He said the gap between minorities and whites is a major shortfall for Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“We’re still celebrating so many firsts that we really shouldn’t be at this point,” Soss said.

City Councilman Don Samuels, who heads the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Health Committee, said in a Minneapolis press release that “we are on the edge of a new era” with Harteau’s appointment.

He said his committee has been “pushing to create a more diverse, community-oriented, ethical, flexible and open police department” for eight years.

Harteau will begin her three-year term as chief on Jan. 2. She serves as acting chief until Jan. 1, when former Chief Tim Dolan finishes his term.

“Obviously, it’s not all going to be wine and roses every day, and we know that there are going to be tough times,” Stiles said. “But I think the mayor and City Council are confident that when the tough times come that Janee will lead us through them with equal parts of strength and compassion.”