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Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has nominated a veteran law enforcement officer from New Jersey to lead the city's Police Department as he aims to fulfill a promise to transform public safety following George Floyd's murder.

Brian O'Hara, who spent decades working as a Newark police officer before becoming the city's deputy mayor, pledged Thursday to "build an MPD that is so good, so respected, that people of all races and backgrounds will want to be a part of this positive change."

"It should be clear by now to all that the idea that policing can simply go away, will be abolished, is just unrealistic," he said in a news conference announcing his nomination. "The problem of serious street crime is urgent, and our communities demand and deserve good police to deal with that urgently. At the same time, I commit to hold all police officers accountable to the values of our community and I invite the community to hold us all accountable as well."

Frey revealed Thursday that he had picked O'Hara, 43, from a pool that included two more finalists who also are from other states. If the City Council signs off on his selection later this fall, O'Hara will be the first chief from outside the Police Department in 16 years.

The nomination comes at a crucial time for the agency, which continues to face demands to both improve accountability and temper violent crime — two issues that have drawn renewed attention to the city's long-standing racial disparities. In a news conference, Frey called this "among the most important hires that I will ever make."

Rising through the ranks

O'Hara began his career as a Newark police officer in 2001 and steadily rose through the ranks, eventually serving as the deputy chief. In 2021, he took over as public safety director, a role that also required him to supervise firefighters and emergency management workers. He managed a $244 million budget and oversaw 2,000 employees — nearly half of whom were sworn officers.

Within 14 months, the mayor elevated O'Hara to the newly created position of deputy mayor of strategic initiatives for police services and public safety. His removal as public safety director coincided with a 13% overall increase in crime — a departure from the reductions of previous years.

Both Frey and O'Hara touted his experience in those roles, saying it would prove invaluable as Minneapolis aims to better coordinate safety services.

"What we heard loud and clear is that people wanted a change-maker. They wanted a reform-minded candidate that would both be accountable to Minneapolis and our residents and also able to drive down crime in a serious way," Frey said. "In total, Brian O'Hara's experience has equipped him with the kind of holistic expertise that we need right now in our city."

It was O'Hara's work navigating a wide-ranging consent decree in Newark that captured the attention of some members of a search committee tasked with vetting the next police chief. Many city officials expect Minneapolis will soon face a similar court order. The Minneapolis police force has a history of using force disproportionately on Black residents, and Black people continue to be disproportionately affected by violent crime.

Newark, a majority Black city, faced similar calls to improve accountability after a yearslong probe by the U.S. Department of Justice found widespread constitutional violations and lax oversight. Reforms made in the wake of that 2016 court order are credited with revamping the department's use-of-force policies, enacting tougher sanctions on problem officers and expanding community engagement programs to rebuild trust. In 2020, while under federal monitorship, Newark police made national headlines for not firing a single shot in the entire calendar year — an unprecedented achievement.

As deputy chief, O'Hara, who is white, served as a liaison between the Newark Police Department and the Justice Department, tasked with ensuring compliance of court-ordered changes to departmental policy. As public safety director, he implemented a number of progressive policies meant to bolster public trust. He signed a memorandum to enact Newark's first Civilian Complaint Review Board, created a full-time LGBTQ police liaison, approved the inclusion of hijabs for Muslim officers and stopped releasing mug shots for lower-level crimes, according to an eight-page résumé obtained through a public records request.

O'Hara cast himself Thursday as a collaborative leader who would restore the embattled department's reputation, both within the city and on the national stage.

"As we move forward, the Minneapolis PD will be an example to the world that there is no dichotomy between protecting human rights and having effective law enforcement," O'Hara said, promising to rebuild the force's depleted ranks and prioritize addressing gun violence.

The search for a new chief

The search for a new Minneapolis police chief began earlier this year, following the retirement of Medaria Arradondo, who served as the city's first Black police chief and oversaw the department through Floyd's murder and the ensuing crises.

The city hired a California-based firm, Public Sector Search & Consulting, to help recruit applicants from across the nation. The group worked with Cedric Alexander, who has since been selected to serve as the city's first community safety commissioner, and a 12-member search committee. The committee narrowed the pool to three finalists, who met with the mayor earlier this month.

Council Vice President Linea Palmisano, who participated in the final interviews in addition to the mayor, said O'Hara stood apart for several reasons: He came from agencies comparable in size to Minneapolis. He had experience working under a consent decree. And he asked thoughtful questions aimed at better understanding the different groups that have a vested interest in Minneapolis' public safety debate.

"He's not from here, yet his interest in really getting to know the city, every single part of the city, is quite genuine," she said, adding: "It seems to be his style is to certainly try to get to know things well and authentically."

Longtime north Minneapolis resident Jeanne Harris, who participated in a public meeting aimed at gathering feedback on the criteria for the next chief, eagerly livestreamed the news conference from her home Thursday. She was encouraged by O'Hara's remarks vowing to bolster staffing and take a harder line on officer misconduct. Although not her top choice, O'Hara appeared "eminently qualified" for the job.

"The main thing is that we have new blood now, so we're starting off fresh," said Harris. "The expectations are that we're going to have fair and effective policing, and that everybody is going to be held accountable for their actions."

Harris hopes O'Hara will prioritize recruiting a new kind of officer who treats Black people with dignity and respect, as well as cleaning up violent crime hot spots like W. Broadway and N. Lyndale Avenue — one of the most dangerous corners in the city.

Residents will eventually have a chance to provide feedback at a public hearing, tentatively aimed for late October. Interim Chief Amelia Huffman will remain in place as the confirmation process unfolds. If approved, O'Hara will have the opportunity to install his own executive leadership team, which may fundamentally reshape MPD's top brass. Huffman's future role remains unclear.

Several members of the search committee reached Thursday evening told the Star Tribune they were impressed by O'Hara's record and heartened by his willingness to listen.

"Of course, action needs to be proven," said Bishop Richard Howell Jr. of Shiloh Temple. "Only time will tell if the wisdom prevails behind this choice."