In this new episode of the Midwest Law Talk podcast, Joseph Wetch interviews Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara. 

Check out this episode to hear Brian O’Hara discuss the following topics, and more: 

  • Coming from Newark, New Jersey to the Twin Cities, and what similarities and differences he has observed between the two cities 
  • What drew him to Minneapolis 
  • Changes in Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 
  • How is the Minneapolis Police Department responding to the rise in violent crime? 
  • How is the Minneapolis Police Department working to rebuild trust and build community engagement? 
  • Will the legalization of recreational cannabis have an impact on illegal drug trafficking in the cities? 
  • What are the ways that the Minneapolis Police Department are working to keep the streets of Downtown Minneapolis safe? 

Listen to the episode on Spotify here, or on Apple here. 


You can also find a transcript of the episode below: 

Joseph Wetch: I’m your host, Joseph Wetch, Minneapolis lawyer, practicing in the state and federal civil dispute and trial space. Today on the podcast is Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara. Chief O’Hara, welcome to Midwest Law Talk. 

Brian O’Hara: Hi Joseph. Thank you for having me. 

Joseph Wetch: Chief, you came to Minneapolis from Newark, New Jersey. How are Minneapolis and Newark similar and dissimilar in terms of the type of policing needed? 

Brian O’Hara: Well, I think on the surface they may appear to be very different cities, but I think in terms of talking about policing and kind of what are sort of the most important issues affecting policing today, I think Minneapolis and Newark are very similar. Newark is a city that for years struggled with some very poor relations between police and people in community and all sorts of issues around use of force and all those types of things, and ultimately wound up with a federal consent decree. Similarly, Newark also struggled for years with some very serious problems around serious street crime and violence. So certainly I think those two parallels, those two topics are two things that are very similar and very critical to policing in Minneapolis today, addressing violent crime and also enacting police reforms in a successful way, especially as we prepare to get into our settlement agreement with the state and potentially a federal consent decree at some point as well. 

Joseph Wetch: What drew you to Minneapolis in the first place, Chief? 

Brian O’Hara: Well, I think I’m a person that believes things in life tend to happen for a reason. And so when I heard about this particular opportunity, I thought from the beginning that this was something that was meant for me, although my wife and my friends did not think so immediately at the time. I do believe that all of my life experiences have sort of been leading up to this point. I led a lot of the reform work in Newark around the consent decree, was able to participate in leading a lot of the violence reduction programs and non-traditional responses and alternatives to dealing with those types of things. 

So I think a lot of the success that we’ve had in Newark, a lot of the work that I did in community personally taught me a lot of life lessons that I think are particularly valuable for the experience that people are having in Minneapolis today. And I think just in terms of, if you look at it across the country, there’s kind of a small group of people who’ve led similarly sized cities, similarly sized police departments, and then there’s even a much smaller group of people who’ve actually led a police department under a consent decree, and even less than that have had some success in implementing reform. So I think again, just the very specific life experiences I’ve had I think have made me kind of uniquely qualified to be here. 

Joseph Wetch: How many sworn officers do you lead Chief? 

Brian O’Hara: Here we have a little under 600. Prior to the murder of George Floyd, I think at the beginning of 2020, hovered around somewhere around 900. So obviously that’s 300 less than what we had prior to the pandemic, which was not an excessively large department at the time either considering the size of the city, the demand for service, the amount of violence and so on. But I think what’s been particularly challenging here over the last three years has just been the rise in violent crime and the reduction in staffing at the same time. It creates this situation where you have to triage a lot of things and you’re investigating sort of the highest rate of violence in a generation, and all that stuff takes time. It takes time to retrieve video and go through all of that to build cases, to have some sense of justice for victims. 

And then a lot of times I think we pull back from some of the things that are not necessarily emergencies and that has a negative impact as well. That’s why I think it’s very important that we emphasize community engagement and trust building as being central to our mission here because it’s so easy to stop doing those types of things when we feel sort of overwhelmed by the amount of crime and violence that we’re responding to. But I think it’s important that we remember. The situation that we’re in today requires that we do that because we’re not going to sustain meaningful reductions in crime and violence without also doing work that builds greater legitimacy, greater trust in our communities here. 

Joseph Wetch: You mentioned community engagement. How do you build that community engagement and collaboration to help the policing effort, especially after the events surrounding George Floyd’s murder? 

Brian O’Hara: Yeah. Well, you used the word collaboration, which I think is absolutely essential. Law enforcement is all about collaboration. Right. In Minneapolis today, we’ve had some tremendous success reducing all categories of violent crime this year and doing so at a significantly reduced sworn staffing. The only reason why that is happening is because of collaboration. It’s because the US attorney’s office and our federal, state and county partners are all helping and pulling more than their weight in helping us focus precisely on the people that are out here sort of causing the most harm in community and holding people accountable. But it’s collaboration that goes beyond just law enforcement. It’s important to collaborate with as many stakeholders and as many community-based organizations as well. 

And one thing I’ve learned that was very obvious to me, especially just being an outsider, is people here have been through a lot over the last three years. Our residents, all folks in the community, our police officers, and there’s a tremendous, tremendous desire here for progress. So we’re trying to tap into that desire for progress as much as possible and get sort of everybody involved that we can, kind of rowing in the same direction. And I think we’re starting to see the results of that. Very significant declines in gun violence this year and all crimes, all types of violent crime categories. And I think the only reason why that is happening is because of all the collaborations and partnerships that we have. 

Joseph Wetch: Can you describe the relationship that your department and your leadership of the department has with the county attorney’s office? 

Brian O’Hara: Well, the county attorney’s office is obviously an essential partner to our police department, a valued partner. We have some assistant county attorneys that are virtually embedded in our agency and are very helpful in terms of helping to build cases and so on. And the county attorney herself has been very helpful trying to help us figure out a lot of the issues and challenges that we’re facing today, particularly around juveniles. A lot of, there’s a lot of different agencies involved in this criminal justice system, if you will, and particularly issues around juveniles that are sort of repeat offenders that come into the system in various ways. Not a lot of information sharing between agencies and just a lot of inhibitors between trying to get people the accountability and the services that they need. And I think the county attorney here has been a tremendous partner in helping us together trying to figure out how do we get a lot of this stuff done. 

Joseph Wetch: You mentioned juveniles. Do you see a lot of juveniles in gang activity in Minneapolis? 

Brian O’Hara: Well, in terms of juveniles, we see a small, very small percentage of juveniles that are very, very, very often coming into contact with the system, and it is producing very tragic results. We could give you our list of top 10, top 15 juvenile offenders, which is something that I did when I first got here. And then sure enough, many of those top juvenile offenders have either been shot or been very seriously injured in car accidents and stolen cars, or they’ve been arrested for various street serious crimes themselves. One of them was arrested with a group of teenagers a couple hours ago in a stolen car that we believe was wanted for a series of robberies. So it’s a very, very small number of juveniles with a very high risk, and they are just as likely to get injured or killed themselves as they are to harm someone else. So it’s a very complicated system here, particularly with juvenile justice, and it’s difficult at times to ensure that there’s accountability even when we are having contact with a lot of those juvenile offenders. 

Joseph Wetch: Are there any hotspots in Minneapolis that cause you concern that keep you up at night that are particularly hot for crime or gun violence that you’re trying to focus your department on in Minneapolis? And as part of that, is there any effort underway for community engagement and collaboration? 

Brian O’Hara: Absolutely. We’re constantly monitoring hotspots because they do tend to change over time and over the course of the year. I can tell you when I first got here, one of the worst hotspots, even before I was sworn in as chief, I was on a tour of the city and at Broadway and Lyndale, there’s a gas station there where four people were shot, I think the day before I arrived in the city, and they were sort of giving me a tour. And I came by the next day and even though four people were shot there, the scene looked completely out of control. I mean, there were people everywhere. It was very obvious kind of hand-to-hand transactions going on, narcotics use openly in public, that kind of thing. And I think that is one example, that location, that corner of how the Attorney General got involved with some civil litigation, the community got involved, did a sit in there and law enforcement, all of law enforcement got involved in collectively doing various prosecutions. 

And I think, knock on wood, that’s an example of what could happen when sort of the community and all of law enforcement and all the stakeholders and business owners and everybody gets together and focuses on an issue. But that’s not to say that there isn’t some level of displacement, which there always is, and that’s why we’re constantly monitoring for where the current geographic concentrations are. But I think it’s probably more important that we focus on sort of the people that we know that are sort of at the greatest risk and closing kind of the most harm out here. And I think there’s been success with that. Year to date today we have had 75 fewer people shot in Minneapolis year to date compared to last year, and that’s 104 fewer people shot this year, year to date compared to 2021. 

So while we’re not quite back at what had been the norm prior to the pandemic, I think we have definitely turned a corner over the last several months. And I’m very pleased with the progress. And at the same time, we’re recovering more and more illegal firearms off of our streets from the hands of felons and juveniles and other people who should not have them. And that’s all being done at a time where the police department staffing is at the lowest level in decades. So I think those are all some very, very positive signs that we’re moving in the right direction. But of course, yes, there’s still a tremendous amount of work that has to be done here. 

Joseph Wetch: You mentioned at that street corner that there was open narcotics use and possibly sale. Now that Minnesota has legalized recreational cannabis, do you anticipate that there’s going to be an influx or more trafficking of other not legal drugs in the city? 

Brian O’Hara: I don’t anticipate violence and crime problems specific to marijuana. The problem that we have here that is just enormously challenging is fentanyl. The illegal fentanyl on the streets likely coming up through the southern border, from Mexico and elsewhere south of the border is really, really just a public health crisis here. I had not seen until I came to Minneapolis, people openly using fentanyl, specifically. In the Northeast in my previous law enforcement experience, you would find fentanyl. We would give out fentanyl test trips because we were finding overdoses would occur because people would buy cocaine or they would buy heroin, and then fentanyl would be in there, laced in there, and that would cause the overdose. Here what we see is people specifically buy fentanyl, and that is the public health crisis that is causing the overdoses, and that is also the drug dealing problem that is very intimately tied to a lot of the violence that we’re seeing. 

So no, I don’t think the legalization of marijuana is going to have much of an impact in that scene. And I’m actually hopeful that some of the people who, some of the gun violence that we experience here is people that go out and get drunk and can’t handle their alcohol and then go to a car and wind up bringing a gun back to shoot someone to settle some dispute over utter nonsense. I’m very hopeful that some of those people may not be engaged in that activity anymore, if this is something else that they could choose to do. But I think the real urgent problem that we have here regarding drugs is fentanyl. And I think it is very intimately linked to a lot of the violent crime problems that we’re having. 

Joseph Wetch: Chief, I live in downtown Minneapolis, actually in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, literally in the heart of downtown Minneapolis. And I see quite a remarkable police presence and I’m grateful for it. But what else is being done in the heart of downtown to ensure that the streets are safe at or around dark? 

Brian O’Hara: Yeah. Well, the streets of downtown Minneapolis, the data will show you are remarkably safe. I walk around downtown myself at night, and I love living in downtown Minneapolis because it’s so convenient. Everything is here, restaurants, all of the major sports teams you can easily go to see. You can drive around without the traffic that I’m used to experiencing. Where I come from, if you wanted to go to a Yankee game, that is an all day experience. So I’m very, very happy living in downtown and being able to experience all that we can so easily. But yes, there has been a very concerted effort, a very deliberate effort to enhance police presence and enhance safety working with the downtown district and a lot of our community partners. And you may notice a lot of the ambassadors and some of the other community organizations that have street workers out there that are also there to try and help keep things safe. 

The significant problem that we have, the problems that we have around safety tend to happen very late at night around bar close. And that’s the time that we have late night safety plans in place where we have dozens of extra officers available. Now that the weather is warmer, you’ll notice the mounted officers out in downtown on horseback as well. And I really think just one of those is the equivalent of at least 10 additional officers because they seated up so high, they can see so much, and people all throughout the crowds can see them. And I think the cops downtown have just been doing an incredible job. 

Now, one thing that’s new this summer that you may notice is there will be some additional street closures happening on the weekends and later in the evening. And that’s just meant to provide a additional activities, some additional pedestrian traffic, but also to disrupt some of the illegal activity that we had seen here recently. So I’m very pleased with the level of safety downtown. And I’m thankful for the plans that we have in place. And I think we’re going to continue to be on the right track there. 

Joseph Wetch: If you go out on calls yourself and you go out on patrol in a marked squad car, why? 

Brian O’Hara: Well, I’m a police officer just like the other roughly 600 sworn members of the Minneapolis Police Department. And I love being a police officer, but I think it’s very important for me as an outsider coming into this department, coming into this department at this critical point in its history, at a moment where we’re going to try and implement reforms and we’re going to try and police in a different way, and we’re going to try and change the narrative around policing in this city. And we’re also going to build trust, and we’re going to do all these dozens of things that we’d have to do in the settlement agreement with the state and potentially in a federal consent decree. So I want, most important thing for me is I want the police officers of the city to see not only that I love this job, but I’m not going to ask them to do anything that I’m not prepared to do myself. 

I’m not going to ask these cops to implement these reforms and do different things and not still be the police. We are going to continue to be the police. We have very serious challenges that still remain around serious street crime and violence. I know a lot of people tend to think that you can’t have both police reform and honoring human rights and civil rights and also address crime in a very serious way. And I think we are already proving people wrong. I think we’re already proving, we have a lot of people that tell myself, tell our officers, tell our elected officials that they see a change already in the Minneapolis Police Department and our police officers. 

And that also that they see a change in the level of safety that they feel in their neighborhood. So that’s the path that we’re going to be on, and that’s something that I think is very important that I am a part of myself. I mean, I think the majority of my job, I think, is not sitting in the corner office here. I think most of my job is actually being out on the street corner and being engaged both with our residents in the community, but as well as our police officers that are out there in the streets. 

Joseph Wetch: I mean, actually, you were on the front page of the Star Tribune recently chasing down a carjacking suspect, weren’t you? 

Brian O’Hara: Yes. That wasn’t the first time either. There’s been a few foot chases here. It was actually, I think when I was going through the process here, I did a ride along with one of our sergeants, and that was the first night I did a ride along. I was still a police officer in New Jersey. I wasn’t armed because I was just here kind of as an applicant in the process. And we pulled up at a corner at Lake and 12th in South Minneapolis, and a guy had a gun, and that was actually my first foot chase unarmed, and we managed to get him and recover the gun. 

Joseph Wetch: Wow. Are there any funding challenges for the Minneapolis Police Department that you could talk about? 

Brian O’Hara: There certainly are funding challenges. I mean, I think the greatest challenge is just people, being able to find as many qualified people as possible to rebuild the department, to replenish our sworn vacancies, but also to build up a lot of our civilian vacancies, which are especially important not only as we deal with the sworn staffing shortage, but as we get ready to implement the settlement agreement and the consent decrees. But all of this stuff it takes people to do, and it takes finances, resources to get done. So over the next several years, as we go through this process with the state settlement agreement, as we go through potentially a federal consent decree, that will be very expensive. 

Those requirements will cost money, will be IT upgrades that we have to do. There’ll be technology that we’ll have to need. There’ll be training that we’ll have to invest in, and that is all stuff that costs money. So no, there’s no specific challenges financially that we face right now, but I just think people need to be aware that one, that this stuff doesn’t happen on its own, but two, if we want the good policing that our residents deserve, that’s effective at reducing crime and violence and also is very good at building and rebuilding trust in community, that it’s going to require significant investments. 

Joseph Wetch: On personal notes Chief, what has it been like living in the Twin Cities for you? 

Brian O’Hara: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I love downtown. I love how it’s so much easier to get around and kind of everything is here, the restaurants, entertainment, all the sports venues, and it’s very different in that the city itself is very clean, so much cleaner and just newer than with a lot of the structures than the Northeast, the older cities in the Northeast. And another, it is culturally different in a lot of ways. Here, I think lots of people, everybody it seems, does stuff outdoors and is a lot more engaged in activities outdoors and that kind of thing, which is great. And also now that the snow is gone, I’ve had a chance to get around a little bit more outside, experience the lakes and a lot of just the natural beauty that is here that is unlike what is available in a very, very congested New York City area, which is where I’m from. 

Joseph Wetch: Have you been able to experience lakes area up in near Detroit lakes or Northern Minnesota? 

Brian O’Hara: No, I have not been that far away. The furthest away from Minneapolis been has been Lake Minnetonka. That’s, 

Joseph Wetch: Okay. 

Brian O’Hara: That’s about it. Yeah. 

Joseph Wetch: Okay. So there’s plenty more that Minnesota has to offer you. 

Brian O’Hara: Yes. I mean, almost all of my time has been within the city limits, so. 

Joseph Wetch: Okay. Plenty more for you to see. 

Brian O’Hara: Yes. Yeah. 

Joseph Wetch: Well, Chief, I’d like to thank you for coming on Midwest Law Talk. We really do appreciate it, and we wish you and your department the best of luck as you continue to take on the job of policing our city and keeping our community safe. 

Brian O’Hara: Great. Thank you so much, Joseph. I appreciate it.