The moment had come to pitch himself, so Brian O'Hara grabbed the mic and laid out his credentials: Twenty-one years in law enforcement, appointed public safety director and, eventually, deputy mayor of Newark, N.J. A true believer in police reform, who has the skill set to navigate the complexities of a federal consent decree.
But residents and faith leaders gathered at Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis on Saturday afternoon demanded to know how an outsider vying to become the city's next chief of police could mend long-festering community relations, exacerbated by the murder of George Floyd.
That act of violence was not an anomaly, City Council President Andrea Jenkins told O'Hara. "It emanated from a culture of policing that completely disrespects, disregards and treats the community as combatants — like we're at war," she said, adding that the city deserves officers who are accountable, professional and respectful.
O'Hara, seeking to convince residents that he is up to the task, vowed to act swiftly when misconduct crosses his desk and institute a zero-tolerance policy for racism on the force.
"Police officers need to understand that despite having the power to take someone's freedom away, they never have the right to take someone's dignity away," said O'Hara, who said he was disturbed by ex-officer Derek Chauvin's defiance toward the crowd's concerns as he pressed his knee into Floyd's neck. O'Hara admitted he could not bring himself to watch the entire video of Floyd's death, just blocks away at 38th and Chicago. "It was disgusting."
The Rev. Ian Bethel of New Beginnings Baptist Ministries jumped to his feet.
"Before you become police chief, you need to watch it," he said.
The event was part of a busy weekend for O'Hara, a New Jersey native who is quickly trying to learn the intricacies of a city at the center of a global movement to reshape policing in response to Floyd's murder. Two years after the viral video of Floyd's killing drew attention to Minneapolis and its longstanding racial inequities, the city still faces demands to both improve accountability for police and temper violent crime.
O'Hara, 43, grew up in Kearny, N.J., a suburb of Newark, where he would eventually begin a long career in law enforcement. His father died when he was a child, and his mother worked multiple jobs to provide for him and his sister. He became a police officer in part because he sought the stability and the pension that came with a government job.
"I became a cop, and you would have thought I hit the lottery, the way my mother and her friends reacted," O'Hara said in an interview Friday.
He joined the Newark police force in 2001, not long before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks ushered in a wave of public support for police officers and other first responders. He still remembers vividly how people stopped by the police station to drop off gifts.
"It's almost like my career is bookmarked by two totally different pendulum shifts in policing," he said.
As the years passed, O'Hara took on supervisory roles and eventually became one of the police department's primary contacts with the U.S. Department of Justice, which entered a consent decree with the city that required it to institute a series of reforms aimed at improving accountability for police. O'Hara describes that as "the most meaningful work I've done in my life" and some of the most difficult.
Many people within the Newark Police Department showed "absolutely no desire" to make changes at the beginning of the process, he said, and many of the community members came to meetings with frustrations that been mounting for years.
"But what I learned from that is when you keep coming back, keep being present, people get to learn who you are, and they see that you're sincere," he said.
That experience, O'Hara said, was a major reason why he decided to continue in law enforcement.
In a news conference unveiling his nomination for the job in Minneapolis, O'Hara promised to build a police department "so good, so respected, that people of all races and backgrounds will want to be a part of this positive change."
Asked how he'll do that, O'Hara said the first step will be to listen both to rank-and-file officers and to the residents, business owners and others with whom they work. His schedule in recent days has included meetings with the council members who will ultimately confirm or reject his nomination. He attended roll call at each of the city's five precincts, where he sought to establish himself as a leader who will judge officers solely based on their performance and reward those efforts accordingly.
"There's nothing I'll ask them to do that I have not done, or would not be prepared to do, myself," he told a handful of North Side residents Saturday at the Capri Theater on W. Broadway Avenue. O'Hara noted that police must develop meaningful relationships outside of regular emergency calls to change longstanding perceptions about the profession.
At various community events, O'Hara repeatedly described Minneapolis police as some of the most "traumatized in the country," but said he feels confident that those who chose to stay are dedicated to curbing violent crime and serving citizens with respect.
While on a citywide ride-along with the gun unit Friday night, O'Hara got a glimpse of how officers track down illicit firearms. Sgt. Andrew Schroeder was talking with a group of young men as he cruised Lake Street when he suddenly spotted a handgun. Schroeder jumped out of the squad car and chased the man on foot; O'Hara quickly joined the pursuit, which he said ended in a lawful arrest, the recovery of an illegal weapon and crack cocaine.
"From what I've seen so far, they're doing the job the right way."
But as Saturday's forums illustrated, it remains to be seen whether, should he land the job, O'Hara's leadership would lead to the institutional change and accountability sought by Minneapolis residents.
"I've heard this many times before ..." the Rev. DeWayne Davis of Plymouth Congregational Church said of promises to hold officers accountable following blatant acts of misconduct. "The accountability that came with someone like Derek Chauvin only came because someone had the presence of mind to record it."