>> The real problems with policing in America, according to a police chief who's trying to solve them this week on "Firing Line."
>> George Floyd!
>> Say his name!
>> George Floyd!
>> There's a lot of hard work ahead.
There are a lot of serious challenges facing this city and facing this police department.
>> Brian O'Hara is the first new police chief in Minneapolis since the murder of George Floyd, a job he says he knew in his gut he was meant to do.
>> I feel as though I've been uniquely qualified to come here in this moment.
>> After a career in the Newark, New Jersey, Police Department, where he was in charge of solving persistent police brutality and civil-rights violations, Chief O'Hara assumes his role in Minneapolis at a critical time.
>> Say his name!
>> Tyre Nichols!
>> Say his name!
>> Tyre Nichols!
>> With the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis last month renewing calls for reform... >> I'm didn't do anything!
>> ...O'Hara was quick to condemn the brutality even before the video was released.
>> It was terrible.
It was horrible.
It was an aberration.
>> With police budgets the subject of fierce debate, recruiting and retaining officers a challenge, and crime rates and gun violence on voters' minds, what does Chief Brian O'Hara say now?
>> "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... >> Chief Brian O'Hara, welcome to "Firing Line."
>> Thank you, Margaret.
>> You have had some of the toughest jobs in policing.
You spent decades working up the ranks of the Newark, New Jersey Police Department when that force was plagued with problems and challenges.
In November, you were sworn in as the chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, the first new police chief after the murder of George Floyd.
And you have said, "From the moment I knew that this position was available, I knew in my gut that this was the job for me."
Tell me why.
>> Well, I do think that things in life happen for a reason.
I think two of the most important things that people are concerned about in Minneapolis are the amount of gun violence and serious street crime that people are experiencing here, as well as the issues around police legitimacy and community engagement.
So I do think my experiences in Newark working around those two issues have uniquely prepared me to be here in this moment.
Newark historically has had very serious problems around gun violence and serious street crime and, at the same time, has had historically very poor relations between police and community.
But thankfully, today, Newark is not the place it was five years ago, let alone 10 or 15 years ago.
And having been the point person dealing with those types of reforms in Newark, working around a federal consent decree, I feel as though I've been, you know, uniquely qualified to come here in this moment, because I think those are probably the most important things that everybody is looking for in terms of progress here in Minneapolis.
>> You just referenced some of the challenges that you faced when you were in Newark.
President Obama's Justice Department ordered Newark to fix its police department with a consent decree, and you rose through the ranks.
Ultimately, you became the commander of the consent-decree police unit.
What did you learn from that experience about how to tackle systemic reforms?
So, that's definitely not a position that I was looking to get.
2016, the city signed the consent decree, began implementing it, and it was really kind of a disaster.
I mean, things were not moving for well over a year.
So then, in 2017, I was appointed to lead the reform effort there.
And that's something that, you know, folks in community were very frustrated about as well as internally in the police department.
Nobody saw any of this as being legitimate or even really being possible.
And the consent decree there, just like what I anticipate Minneapolis will eventually go through, deals with all of the most significant issues that people complain about as being wrong and problematic in policing in the United States today.
And having gone into that space, I was the person that had to kind of figure things out.
You know, the DOJ and the city signed an agreement, but nobody tells you how to actually implement this.
This is stuff that the city has to figure out on its own.
So, having been in that position, you know, I was the person who then went out into the community, began holding town hall meetings, listening sessions.
And that was a difficult process, for sure, in the beginning.
There's a lot of times I went to meetings and people were just yelling at me the entire time I was there, and I wasn't even sure what people were angry about half the time.
But what I learned in that is, when you keep coming back, when you keep showing up, particularly with those people who have been most impacted by policing, they can see through and they can tell who's genuine, who's authentic, who's serious about trying to make change and who's not.
And a lot of those folks then showed up at my retirement party in Newark this last October and said some some great things about me as I was leaving Newark to come here.
So, I learned it's a very rewarding process when we're able to figure out how to get this right, when we're able to implement processes internally in the police department that we can sort of shift the culture and bring police officers along voluntarily to make a lot of these changes without having to resort to discipline.
So that's -- that's been my experience in Newark, and that's what I hope to have as the experience here in Minneapolis.
>> Minneapolis was, at one point, the epicenter of the "defund the police" debate.
A majority of the city council pledged to dismantle the department in the weeks after George Floyd's death, as you know, and several members later backed off the idea.
Voters rejected it resoundingly in 2021.
How do you interpret that outcome?
Did the fever break?
>> Well, for sure.
You know, I think most reasonable people would acknowledge in a city that has had over 500 people hit by bullets, yeah, it's ridiculous to say, "Abolish the police."
I think a lot of times that comes from a very privileged sort of bourgeois liberal, you know, position where people who do feel safe are able to say, "We can abolish the police," while those who live in neighborhoods, you know, that are afraid -- too afraid to have their child walk to the corner, to go to the store -- don't have that luxury.
My experience here has been those are not the people who ever wanted to abolish the police.
It's been people who are -- who are privileged and feel safe, who are in a position to then say that for other people.
>> Chief, the buzz phrase "community policing" has become very popular around policy makers, people who like to talk about police reform.
You advocate, you have advocated, for community violence-prevention programs.
Changing the culture within police departments.
Tell me why.
>> Well, I think it's true that the term "community policing" has been around for a couple of decades now.
Cops show up and have a meeting and tell community what their problem is and what the police do about it and then serve refreshments at the end.
And that's not what I'm talking about when I say community engagement.
Community engagement is particularly very important here in this city today.
In Minneapolis today, we have hundreds of fewer officers than we had before George Floyd was murdered.
And at the same time, we have the highest levels of gun violence and serious street crime that the city has seen in a generation.
>> So when you have those two factors combining at the same time, you have a situation where it's very difficult to do anything other than respond to and hold people accountable for the most serious crimes.
And the Minneapolis Police Department today has a very negative perception.
And I think it's very important that we do things intentionally to engage so that particularly young people in this city can see police officers present in their community in non-law-enforcement settings.
You know, the reality about being a cop is, you know, mom and dad do not call me over to the house to talk about how well the marriage is going.
We show up and we get called when things are at their worst.
So it's problematic to me that particularly young people see police officers only in those law-enforcement type of situations, where they might have to arrest someone, where they might have to stop someone and those types of things.
Law enforcement, in general, is all about collaboration.
So when you engage with community-based violence-prevention groups, a lot of times you're engaging with folks who have had run-ins with the law in the past, who may not have had a clean record, but they're folks who are credible in their community and they're folks who can speak to people and try and prevent things from happening.
They share with me and with all of us the common goal of just trying to keep people alive.
So, I know that's something that brushes up against a lot of what people traditionally think law enforcement should be doing, but I think if the most important goal we have is simply to keep people alive, we need to be partnering with these groups and with law enforcement and everyone that we possibly can to try and be effective.
>> Since 2020, much of the country has experienced an alarming increase in violent crime.
Homicides rose by 30% that year.
Many cities continue to see those rates rise into 2021.
Initial data suggest homicides and shootings declined in 2022, but robberies were up, and most categories of crime remain elevated above pre-pandemic levels.
The causes of this spike in crime are still being debated by experts.
>> What is your view?
>> Well, it's a very complex issue.
I can tell you, to begin with, 2020, dealing with the pandemic, we had a perfect storm of factors come together.
As soon as the pandemic initiated in March, the legal sales of firearms skyrocketed and remained very high during the course of the pandemic.
And what that means is, we simply had more guns in circulation in this country.
And we already lived in a country that has more guns than people, and now we're adding, you know, 15 to 20 million more guns into circulation each year.
So what we have seen nationally and, in particular, in cities is a decrease in time from when a firearm is legally purchased to when it is ultimately involved in a crime.
And that's just a fact.
A lot of the other things that we have seen come together, obviously, folks had challenges with employment.
Schools were closed.
Young people were not supervised.
There were not activities.
All of those types of things helped drive some sense of lawlessness and some increase in mischief and some increase, you know, in social problems.
And it's very clear to me that, here in Minneapolis, gun violence in particular skyrocketed.
And we have had the highest level of gun violence that we've had in a generation.
But I'm thankful because of the collaborations that we have, both with our law-enforcement partners and with community, we were able to end this year with, despite having hundreds of fewer police officers, we ended the year recovering the most illegal guns in this city ever and had well over 100 fewer victims of gunshot wounds in the city.
And while, you know, there's still an outrageous number of people who are shot in Minneapolis, I still think it's important to note that over 100 fewer families this year were affected by violence.
>> So, what's the bottom line?
Are you saying if there were fewer guns, legal and illegal, we'd have less gun violence, no question?
>> I think the bottom line is, we have to acknowledge that guns are designed to kill people.
That's what they're for.
And, yes, having more guns legally available in circulation has more guns that are available than to be stolen, to be lost, to wind up in straw purchases, to become involved in crimes.
And it's been very striking to me, being new in this state, in the city, just the incredible amount of guns that are available in circulation here.
And sometimes it feels almost like we're just not making a dent in the problem because, you know, when people live in a situation where there's -- where they feel unsafe, where crime is higher than it had been before, I think we will wind up having more people carrying guns, including people who would not normally carry them, simply because they feel afraid.
And I think we have to acknowledge that the presence of a firearm, you know, increases the risk of someone being hurt.
It increases the risk of a child getting it, it increases the risk of someone committing suicide, it increases the risk of that firearm being used when there is some minor conflict.
And that's what we see play out in the city.
And that is literally a matter of life and death here.
>> On January 7th, FedEx employee Tyre Nichols was beaten by five Memphis police officers during a traffic stop.
Three days later, he died in the hospital.
Body-camera footage and surveillance footage was released less than three weeks after the incident occurred.
What was your reaction, Chief, when you learned about what happened to Tyre Nichols?
>> Well, my initial reaction is, I'm incredibly thankful for the leadership of Chief C.J.
>> As you know, five Memphis police officers were terminated last week.
These officers were found to be directly responsible for the physical abuse of Mr. Nichols.
>> I mean, I think she really rose to the moment.
And I think people are safer in my city.
And things did not happen here.
There wasn't property damage.
There wasn't, you know, protests that got out of control because of how well she handled that situation.
But I think we just have to acknowledge the situation for what it was.
It was -- you know, it was terrible, it was horrible, it was an aberration.
But, unfortunately, you know, we will go through these processes like we always do, to sort of look through our policies, our practices and who we're hiring and how we're training folks, and all of that is important.
But I don't think -- Because we're dealing with human beings, I don't think we'll ever be in a situation where we can end, you know, this type of misconduct completely.
Certainly, we can all do things and try and have reforms and processes in place in our departments to minimize these possibilities as much as possible, but I don't think it's a situation where we'll ever be in -- where we can rule it out completely, simply because we're always going to be dealing with human beings.
We have to be in a situation where we're willing to immediately act, as Chief Davis did, and arrest and charge and terminate police officers who so egregiously violate people's basic human rights.
>> Talk about the role of body cameras in modern policing, Chief, because, you know, there is a huge increase in the number of police departments around the country that are using them now.
But their utility seems to still be debated.
You know, it didn't stop Tyre Nichols from police violence that ultimately killed him.
What does your experience tell you?
>> My experience, when I took over the consent decree implementation in Newark, the body-worn-camera program, there was a disaster because nobody was checking.
And so when I began to check, I learned that cops were learning that nobody was checking if they didn't record an incident, and there was no consequence for it.
So it was a very, very low level of compliance.
So you have to ensure that you have very robust and quick auditing processes in place to ensure that there's basic levels of compliance that officers are recording the things that they were supposed to record, they're, you know, continuously recordings throughout the duration of the incident.
They're not shutting the recording off early.
When cameras are implemented appropriately and when there are robust accountability processes in place to ensure their implementation is in accordance with policy, what I have found is, the vast majority of the time, the cameras actually help police officers way more than they hurt them.
The vast majority of the time, when a citizen makes a complaint against a police officer, the camera will quickly show, "No, the officer did not say that."
Those types of things resolved more often than not in favor of police officers, and then that actually builds support among the police officers for the implementation of the camera program.
But it's important to remember that simply having a body-worn camera is not a panacea.
It is not the complete viewpoint.
It is a very limited viewpoint.
And I think that's something that we saw in the Tyre Nichols incident, where clearly a surveillance camera from above clearly saw and gave a perspective different from what was available from some of the officers' cameras.
>> You know, it's unclear why Tyre Nichols was pulled over.
There were claims he was driving recklessly that have not been proven.
In 2016, a 32-year-old black man, Philando Castile, was fatally shot in front of his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter during a traffic stop in in the greater Minneapolis area.
Traffic stops are one of the places where we see deep racial disparities in policing.
What do you think is the right way or the best way or a plausible way to reform traffic stops?
>> Well, I think we should be unanimous in agreement that police officers conducting traffic stops should identify themselves immediately, should explain exactly why a person is being stopped, should answer any reasonable questions posed to them about about the stop and what is happening.
I also think it does make sense to limit some of these, like, very frivolous, you know, traffic stops.
If the only reason you're stopping someone is because they have an air freshener swinging from their rearview mirror, that's probably not a good enough reason to stop somebody.
At the same time, we have a lot of shootings that result from people going to cars to retrieve a gun and a lot of guns that are present in vehicles that are then involved in shootings.
So it is a balance.
And, you know, a lot of the common complaints that police deal with is folks complaining about people speeding through their neighborhood, driving recklessly, and so on.
So I think there's ways to conduct traffic stops, you know, lawfully, and that can help build some sense of legitimacy for what police are doing.
Give people a break and have someone leave the situation actually feeling better than -- better about us than they did beforehand.
And at the same time, that still addresses a very real need that community has in terms of both traffic safety and law enforcement.
>> President Biden has called on Congress to "do something" on police reform in his most recent State of the Union address.
And federal legislation on police reform has failed at the federal level, you know, since George Floyd's murder.
One of the sticking issues is a disagreement over ending qualified immunity.
This is the policy that shields law-enforcement officers from liability in civil lawsuits.
Republicans have been concerned that ending qualified immunity would hurt already challenging police-recruitment efforts, and since 2020, Minneapolis has lost -- I mean, you referenced recruitment challenges.
Since 2020, Minneapolis has lost about 300 officers due to resignations, retirements, disability.
And you've had difficulty replacing them.
>> From your perspective, would ending qualified immunity make it harder to recruit?
>> Yeah, absolutely.
Ending qualified immunity, I think, both will not solve the problem people are trying to address, which is police misconduct, and it also will exacerbate the problem of not being able to, you know, attract and retain qualified people who represent community values.
I think the reality of the job here today is that everything is under a microscope.
You know, our police officers, they're not attorneys, they're not social workers, they're not, you know, PhDs, but they are constantly called into situations where everything is recorded, and they are expected to act perfectly.
That's the reality.
And they know if they make a mistake that may be perceived as having been reckless or may be perceived as something, a decision in the spur of the moment, that was not reasonable, they may face criminal consequences for that decision, and that's very real.
And that's -- that's right.
I mean, that's what the law is in this country, and that's what the standard should be.
So at the same time, I don't think we need to, you know, exacerbate this problem that we already have by, you know, creating this now civil liability personally for the officers by removing qualified immunity.
It doesn't solve the problem we're trying to address.
And it also will not help us get the good police that we need.
>> This program aired for 33 years, was hosted by a sort of conservative television icon, William F. Buckley Jr.
Civilian review boards... >> Mm-hmm.
>> ...to hold police accountable was a debate on that original program in 1966.
>> That was, again, during another period of racial unrest.
And William F. Buckley Jr. argued against the civilian review board.
Take a listen to the argument he made in 1966.
Here it is.
>> There is a general feeling that, in other towns in America, where civilian review boards have been instituted, it has clearly been the result of political pressure, and that nothing very much was accomplished, certainly nothing positively, but almost certainly, at least in some cases, something negative.
For instance, Rochester after the riots there, one city with an outside review board, the police were so careful to avoid accusations of improper conduct that they were virtually paralyzed.
>> Do you think that argument from nearly 60 years ago, that civilian review boards paralyze police officers over fear of accusations of misconduct, is still relevant in any way?
And have you seen, in your experience, civilian review boards as effective tools in mitigating police brutality?
>> Well, I don't think civilian review boards paralyze police.
I don't think that.
I do think there's been a lot of research done since 1966.
And I think there's kind of a consensus that perhaps, for many of the reasons Mr. Buckley mentioned, you know, the political influence on these boards and so on, that perhaps a more effective form of oversight would be civilian or independent auditing of these types of police functions.
And some review boards have that authority.
My opinion is, that type of review and authority could actually be more effective than simply having a civilian complaint review board that sort of does all of this work itself and administers discipline.
>> Chief, this is personal to you.
You've made your life as a police officer.
Your wife is still, as I understand it, in Newark.
New Jersey police officer.
>> Yes, she is.
She's a lieutenant.
>> She's also Black and Muslim.
And I understand she's finishing her tenure before joining you in Minneapolis.
What is the key ingredient for a leader who wants to restore trust between a department and the community?
>> I think what I learned in Newark is what I'm trying to -- trying to do here.
And I think the key ingredient is that presence is powerful.
And that means I have to be present in communities throughout the city as much as possible so that people see me, that they can get some sense of authenticity from me, but also to be present in the police department.
Since I've been here, I make it a habit to ride in a marked squad car around the city.
I respond to calls for service and backups when police officers call for help so that the cops see that I'm not afraid to do the job.
>> Chief Brian O'Hara, thank you for joining me on "Firing Line."
Thank you for what you're doing.
>> Thank you for having me, Margaret.
>> "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... >> You're watching PBS.