A Different Kind of Cop

Meet Janeé Harteau, a new Minneapolis police chief for a new era

Never mind the nightstick. The slender wooden club in Janeé Harteau’s new office is an anachronism, a reminder of what law enforcement used to be. It dates to the early days of her cop career in Minneapolis, which began in 1987. She was 22 then, and had put herself through law-enforcement school by singing in a hard-rock band called Magnum: uniform by day, fishnets by night. Over the years, she suffered a broken nose from a sucker-punch, a damaged thumb from tackling a suspect, and such dangerous harassment from fellow cops that she and then-patrol partner Holly Keegel filed a complaint that helped reform the department. (Keegel is now a sergeant on the force, and she and Harteau live as domestic partners in Andover with their teenage daughter.) This month, Harteau becomes the first female police chief in Minneapolis, one of just three overseeing a major American city.

You are part French-Canadian and part Native American. Does that come through in your day-to-day life?

I’m not a person who can be put in a box. But how that background does come out is that I have a lot of empathy for different experiences; I tend to see things through many eyes.

Do you miss Duluth, where you spent your teenage years?

I couldn’t wait to leave. I love busyness, I love diversity, I love the arts. Duluth was flannel and Wranglers. But as you get older, you appreciate the small-town feel, that sense of solidarity, which is something I want to bring to Minneapolis neighborhoods.

How will you do that?

You start by getting officers out of their cars. We generally walk beats in business districts and everyone else only sees officers on 911 calls, but I want to change that. Then people can understand that under the uniform is a human being. The other day, I wore plainclothes and someone told me, “You look like a person!” I said, “Well, that’s interesting, because I am!”

Cops get better information then, too.

As a beat cop, I’d get people’s whole life story and also, “Hey, that’s where they hide the drugs.” When I was working undercover narcotics, I was interacting with people I’d arrested in the past, but because I’d treated them with respect they made sure I was taken care of in precarious situations. They could’ve said, “Hey, she’s a cop!” and blown my cover. But they didn’t, and I’m rather grateful.

Mayor Rybak says you see the “human side” of crime.

When I started, officers were about making arrests and filing reports. But you can’t arrest your way out of things. Not long term. I was a beat officer at Chicago and Franklin in the 1990s, when the drug and gang violence was so bad that officials were contemplating bringing in the National Guard. The people we dealt with every day were homeless, addicted, victims of sexual or domestic abuse—arresting somebody isn’t going to fix that. We need to figure out why people are on the streets. Not to say we don’t need to make arrests. But officers can work with social services and neighborhoods to help solve the long-term issues.

I take it Hollywood isn’t helping with the way it portrays cops?

I enjoy the TV shows—Blue Bloods is my favorite—but they’re so far-fetched. People get killed in the line of duty and then the officers go out for a beer without a second thought? Believe me, when a three-year-old is killed inside his home two days after Christmas, you bring that home.

The perception of crime downtown always seems to be worse than the reality. How do you fix that?

If people see uniforms, if they see the Downtown Improvement District ambassadors, they feel better. There are 13 private security officers downtown for every police officer—we need to tap that resource. But also, downtown is very urban and it should look urban. Some people from the suburbs are not used to seeing that. We need to educate people about what’s wrong with an area and what’s just naturally urban.  

Minneapolis has paid millions in recent years to settle police-misconduct cases. How do you turn that around?

There are two ways to change behavior: discipline and training. Give officers the skills and tools to do their job, and make sure we’re clear on what’s appropriate. I’ll be asking officers, in every encounter they have, to reflect on how they would want a family member to be treated—what language they’d use, what actions they’d take. That doesn’t mean force shouldn’t be used, but you need to ask, “Is it reasonable?”

That may change the perception of officers in the long term. What about short term?

We need to tell our story better. We handle some 340,000 calls a year, and only a fraction go wrong—we get it right most of the time. But this goes largely unacknowledged. How many times will a cop do something heroic and then say, “I don’t need a medal, I don’t need a pat on the back.” I’d challenge that: people need to understand the good things that get done. As a citizen, I want to hear the bad but also the good, so I feel confident that things are being done right. Of course, we’re not superheroes or what’s shown on TV. If we were, we’d have zero crime and I’d be wearing something different, something more like Wonder Woman.

Tim Gihring is a senior editor for Minnesota Monthly.