When dozens of people began to repopulate the site of a massive former homeless encampment in south Minneapolis during the fall of 2020, community elders called upon then-Deputy Police Chief Henry Halvorson.
He beelined to the narrow stretch of land along Hiawatha and Franklin avenues, known as the "Wall of Forgotten Natives," to meet with those who pitched tents there. A member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Halvorson had become a trusted liaison between police and the city's Indigenous population, and he wanted to help alleviate tensions.
"He understood that with each and every interaction with the public, he had an opportunity to make a positive impression and create a new relationship," former Chief Medaria Arradondo said. "He was a beacon of light for so many."
Halvorson, a patient and mild-mannered officer who became the Minneapolis Police Department's second-highest ranking American Indian in the agency's 150-plus history, died July 20 at J.A. Wedum Hospice in Brooklyn Park after a long battle with colon cancer. He was 54.
Over his 31-year tenure, Halvorson developed a reputation as a quiet leader, dedicated to fostering diverse talent — on and off the police force — and building bridges with marginalized communities that suffered disparate treatment from law enforcement.
He was proud of his heritage and regularly gave back by counseling Native youth about the many opportunities a higher education could unlock.
"He was showing the path — and that you could do it if you try," said Jolene Jones, former board president of the Little Earth Residents Association. "We hoped he might be chief some day."
Following a period of escalated racial tensions in 2003, Halvorson joined a group of prominent civil rights leaders, including American Indian Movement (AIM) co-founder Clyde Bellecourt, to craft a memorandum of understanding that set up a Police Community Relations Council.
A few years later, he helped coordinate Minnesota's first Native American Law Enforcement Summit with his longtime MPD partner, the late Sgt. Bill Blake. The two-day conference provided training for tribal and non-tribal officers in a collaboration meant to slow down the crime that cycles between urban and reservation populations.
As a street cop, Halvorson patrolled with a deep sense of empathy – never forgetting his roots. On several occasions, friends witnessed Halvorson dole out cash from his own wallet to citizens who approached him asking for grocery money.
"They understood the trappings of poverty," said Robert Blake, brother of Bill Blake and executive director of the Native Sun Community Power Development. "He did the job right."
When Halvorson and his buddies failed to make the MPD softball team one year, he and Blake formed their own called "MPD Legends" — a tongue-in-cheek nod to their B-team status. After games, they often hit a local karaoke joint, where they became known for their rendition of Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love."
Rising in the ranks
Born and raised in Princeton, Minn., Halvorson grew into a talented young athlete who dreamt of becoming a teacher. He pursued a Spanish degree at University of Minnesota-Morris, where he played football and considered joining the Marines.
After graduation, when teaching jobs were hard to come by, an advertisement for the Minneapolis police cadet program caught his eye. He joined the police academy in 1992.
Early on, Halvorson won a medal of commendation for nabbing two armed robbery suspects fleeing from a scene in the East Phillips neighborhood.
Colleagues often credited his calm demeanor with deescalating chaotic situations in the field. He had this uncanny ability to let agitated people talk and make them feel heard, said retired Lt. Tim Mattsson
"The way he would be relaxed, accepting and respectful to them – they would just naturally calm down," said Mattsson, who served as a Fifth Precinct supervisor alongside Halvorson for several years. "That's the ultimate goal."
Over time, Halvorson worked his way up the promotional ladder as a sex-crimes detective, field supervisor and lieutenant in charge of Internal Affairs, where he also spent time as an investigator. He later earned a master's degree from the University St. Thomas.
Eventually, he was tapped to be the deputy chief in charge of the professional standards unit, which oversees Internal Affairs. "You learn where your true friends are," he said of his time in Internal Affairs, according to a local news report. "You have to maintain objectivity."
In 2020, Arradondo promoted Halvorson to assistant chief, making him the first Native man to ever hold that rank – and second-highest ranking American Indian after former Chief Janeé Harteau.
Even as top brass, Halvorson never lost his connection to the rank-and-file, continuing to offer mentorship to those who aspired to reach the front office. His personality was so measured that close friends joked about him being 'stoic.'
"You'd have a hard time knowing if he had a toothache or had just won the Powerball," Arradondo quipped.
But at home, he could be goofy – breaking into spontaneous dances, like "the Griddy" just to make his family smile, said Denise Halvorson, his wife of 20 years. A diehard "Star Wars" fan, Halvorson loved collecting figurines and taking his four children to comic book movie premieres. They all saw "The Flash" together shortly before he was admitted to hospice.
Even after the cancer diagnosis, Halvorson demanded to keep working as long as he was physically able, his wife said, because he wanted to play a role in shaping critical police reforms in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder.
"He was selfless," Denise Halvorson said, noting that he maintained a positive outlook throughout his illness. "He always believed he would beat it."
Halvorson quietly retired Jan. 30, following an extended medical leave.
Earlier this month, as he lay bedridden, Halvorson met Chief Brian O'Hara for the first time.
"I wish I could stay and help," he told the chief.
"So that tells you everything about Henry," said Cmdr. James Novak, who came on the force with Halvorson in 1992.
Two days later, officers from Minneapolis and several suburban police departments surprised Halvorson's family with a parade of squad cars outside his hospice facility, a show of solidarity meant to honor their friend's three decades of public service.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughters Rosa, Marissa and Alayna; son Frankie; brother Erik; and several beloved nieces and nephews. A celebration of life event is scheduled for this Friday, July 28 (visitation begins at 10 a.m., service at noon) at Mermaid Supper Club, 2200 Hwy. 10 E., Mounds View.