NJ official searching for leader in town where George Floyd died

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By AMY FORLITI, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said Thursday he was naming a former public safety director from Newark, New Jersey, as his first choice for the city’s next police chief, at a time when the department is grappling with a depleted workforce and the uncertainty of an ongoing federal investigation into the murder of George Floyd.

If confirmed by the city council, Brian O’Hara, deputy mayor of Newark, would take over a department that some city leaders and community members had sought to abolish in recent years, and he would run the agency through Court-ordered changes that are expected as a result of the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into police practices.

“What we heard loud and clear was that people wanted a changemaker,” Frey said. “They wanted a reform candidate who would be both accountable to the city of Minneapolis and our residents and also capable of serious crime reduction. … Minneapolis has called for change and Deputy Mayor Brian O’Hara is answering that call.

O’Hara said Thursday he would work to reduce gun violence, strengthen ranks in the police department and work with the community “to heal the heart of this great city.”

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O’Hara said he plans to build a department so good that people of all races and backgrounds will want to be part of it.

“It should be clear to everyone by now that the idea that the police can just disappear, be abolished, is simply unrealistic. The issue of serious street crime is urgent and our communities demand and deserve good policing to address this urgent need,” he said, later adding, “To those who criticize the police and this agency. I’m asking you to give us a chance.”

Frey intends to submit O’Hara’s name to the full city council next week to begin the confirmation process.

Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and executive director of the Wayfinder Foundation, said the city’s decision to seek an outside police chief was a good one.

Levy Armstrong, who was co-chair of the city’s community safety task force, said her group had highlighted the need for a culture change within the department, which she said would have been difficult if the new leader came from within.

“They definitely have a chance for a fresh start,” Levy Armstrong said. However, she added: “In light of all that our community has endured over the past few years, but especially since the murder of George Floyd, the new Chief of Police will have to go the extra mile to build relationships within of our community and to help change the perception of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Minneapolis has been at the center of calls for changes in policing since the May 2020 killing of Floyd, whose death below an officer’s knee led to nationwide demands for racial justice and an end to police brutality. Calls to abolish the department or dismantle it and replace it with a new public safety department were rejected by city voters last year.

The city is also under federal investigation into its policing practices, and court-mandated changes are expected to be ordered by consent decree. The city is currently working with the state Department of Human Rights on a similar process, after an investigation by that agency found the police department has engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination for at least the past last decade.

O’Hara once oversaw such a change, after the Justice Department found that the Newark Police Department had engaged in an unconstitutional policing model and practice. From 2017 to 2020, O’Hara was the person responsible for the consent decree process, working as a liaison between the department and federal authorities to ensure that a 2016 consent decree was implemented and the Newark’s department was in compliance with efforts to change the agency’s culture.

From there, he became deputy chief of the Newark Office of Accountability, Engagement, and Oversight, where he promoted accountability within the department. In 2021, he was named director of public safety for Newark, overseeing more than 1,960 employees, including 996 sworn police officers, 611 firefighters and 346 civilians, and a budget exceeding $200 million. He is currently Deputy Mayor of Newark.

Emma Pederson, a volunteer with Communities United Against Police Brutality, said Minneapolis is nuanced and residents have many different opinions. Pederson said she doesn’t think O’Hara will be widely accepted as a nominee, but that’s okay.

“One of the things that will work well in the city is that he is a good communicator and is very genuine,” she said, adding that he was responsive and would be able to listen to people with different opinions.

Pederson served on the search committee for a new leader as a representative of the Minneapolis Youth Congress. She said she was optimistic about O’Hara and loved his background, especially his work implementing the consent decree in Newark.

“His experience with that and also his experience of responsibility within the Newark Police Department was very appealing,” Pederson said. She added that she also likes his strategies for ensuring police officers represent the community they serve, and she looks forward to seeing how he addresses diversity in police recruitment.

“The real test of how well he does in this job will be once things get started, the programs he implements, how he approaches accountability and discipline,” she said. “I’d love to see him in action…before I have any definitive opinions on him.

Copyright 2022 The Associated press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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