Minneapolis police chief faces new test after George Floyd death

Medaria Arradondo is the first African American to lead the sometimes troubled department.
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Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.David Joles / Star Tribune via AP file

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By Corky Siemaszko

The Minneapolis police chief thrust into the spotlight by the George Floyd killing was promoted to his post after another racially charged death that involved an officer — the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.

Chief Medaria Arradondo, then a 28-year veteran of the force, became the city’s first black police chief after his predecessor resigned amid harsh criticism for failing to cut short a vacation and return to Minneapolis after Damond was accidentally killed by Officer Mohamed Noor in July 2017.

Noor is black and Damond was white.

Now, the 53-year-old police chief is trying to help calm a city that has been torn apart by several nights of protests following the release of video that captured the last moments of Floyd, a black man who died while he was being detained by four Minneapolis cops.

Arradondo has drawn praise for moving quickly to fire the officers, including Derek Chauvin, who was arrested Friday and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. The charging documents state that Chauvin, who is white, kept kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly three minutes after he became "non-responsive.”

The other former officers fired were Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng.

Former Minneapolis Police officer Mohamed Noor arrives with his lawyers for the beginning of his trial last year in Minneapolis.Stephen Maturen / Getty Images file

“His swift action was reason they are being held accountable,” said Raeisha Williams, a community activist and former marketing director for the Minnesota chapter of the NAACP. “That was a brave step to recommend charging these officers. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Minnesota.”

While the protests in Minneapolis have, at times, been violent and police have resorted to using tear gas to clear the streets, Williams said Arradondo has been working hard to keep officers from over-reacting.

“I am 100 percent sure some of those protesters would be dead if anybody else was running the police department,” Williams said. “He is very much aware that there is racial injustice and that there is white supremacy in the police department.”

But other Minneapolis activists say Arradondo has moved too slowly to root out the racism in the ranks and make much-needed reforms.

“The fact is he is part of the system,” said community activist Adrianna Cerrillo, who got to know Arradondo when she served on the Police Conduct Oversight Commission. “He took the right first step when he fired the police officers and he’s been visible at press conferences. But he’s not been engaging with the people.”

Activist Sam Sanchez said Arradondo is “very good at public relations, but he hasn’t delivered the changes we need in Minneapolis.”

Justine DamondStephen Govel Photography

And even though Arradondo has personally felt the sting of discrimination, his still bleeds cop blue, Sanchez said.

“There is a blue line that is not crossed,” Sanchez said. “Arradondo is a police officer first, before anything else. Being a police officer comes before his race and ethnicity.”

Arradondo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After the City Council signed off his nomination to be police chief in 2017, Arradondo warned that changes wouldn’t happen in the police department overnight.

“The ultimate goal is to have a department where the community trusts us, where we are looked upon as being legitimate, where we are looked at as being guardians of our community and one with our community,” he said. “That is the direction I plan to lead.”

His appointment was applauded by Minneapolis’ black community, and his reappointment in 2018 was hailed by police union president Lt. Bob Kroll, who called Arradondo “the best chief that I’ve had to work under in a Federation capacity.”

“He is the opposite of a narcissist, this isn’t about him and his career,” Kroll told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “This is truly about advancing the department.”

Kroll, who spoke at a Trump rally last year, issued a statement before Chauvin and the other officers were fired.

“Now is not the time to rush to judgment and immediately condemn our officers,” he said. “We ask that the community remain calm and the investigation be completed in full.”

Arradondo, whose family reportedly has lived for generations in Minnesota and who goes by the nickname “Rondo,” started off as a school resource officer in 1989 and worked his way up to patrolman and internal affairs investigator before moving further up the ranks.

Williams said she got to know the chief after the 2015 police shooting of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man whose death sparked street protests.

“He gets it,” Williams said. “He knows the police have to do better. And he doesn’t talk down to us.”

A gifted speaker, Arradondo honed his communication skills by frequently appearing on behalf of the department at City Council hearings and countless community meetings. Even his detractors concede he’s hard not to like.

“He’s a wonderful person, very charming,” Cerrillo said. “But he’s a cop. He works for a racist entity that protects the interests of the rich, not the poor.”

Arradondo’s rise was not all smooth sailing. He and four other top-ranking officers sued the department for discrimination in 2007 and received a settlement two years later that paid the officers a total sum of $740,000, according to the Star-Tribune.

He has been credited with being one of the first in his department to reach out to the growing Somali community after the 9/11 attacks, a time when the mostly Muslim immigrants were under heightened scrutiny by law enforcement.

One of the first Somali-Americans to join the force was Noor, who was convicted of killing Damond and sentenced in 2019 to 12-plus years in prison.