Thinking Outside The Thin Blue Line: Janee Harteau

Janee Harteau resists definition, whether it be by gender, race, creed, sexual orientation, or even her impressive new title: Chief of Minneapolis Police.

Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau
Photos by: Cameron Wittig

In 1985, Janee Harteau was the lead singer for a Top 40 pop/rock cover band in Hibbing. “I was going to law enforcement classes at Hibbing Community College during the day,” Harteau recalls, almost 30 years later in her big new office inside Minneapolis City Hall, “and I was gigging out at night.” Her band was called Magnum. “Funny, right?” she says.
But the fact that the new Minneapolis police chief used to sing Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” and Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” in Hibbing bars as a 19-year-old community college student isn’t just an amusing pretty cool for a cop footnote to her story. It’s a key part of who she is.

Chief Harteau made time for a couple of hour-long conversations running up to her swearing-in ceremony during the first week in December, one in her office (newly vacated by outgoing chief Tim Dolan) and one in one of the department’s sleek black Chevy Tahoes, driving around the Third Precinct Chicago-Franklin neighborhood she used to patrol back when she and her partner, Holly Keegel, were known as “Cagney and Lacey.”

As she talks about her decision to become a cop, her steady rise through the ranks, and her struggles to be accepted by male officers, it becomes increasingly apparent that Chief Harteau can be all things to all people. She’s a breath of fresh air—and many hope a game changer—in a department that has had a bumpy ride.

0113_thinkingoutside_p1.jpgHarteau’s confirmation served as the proud debut of the police department’s new face.

Her confirmation hearing was a verifiable love-in where not one negative comment was raised. People from all over the city came up to tell council member Don Samuels and the rest of the public safety committee how qualified Harteau is for the job: bar owners from downtown, small business leaders from the West Bank, Baptist ministers from the North Side, chamber of commerce types, people who volunteer at the homeless shelters, neighborhood organizers from south Minneapolis, tribal reps from the American Indian Center on Franklin. Sharon Lubinski, who graduated from the same academy class with Harteau in 1987, went on to become the city’s first openly gay assistant chief in 2009, and is now a U.S. marshal, was just as effusive as everybody else. “Janee is what the community really needs,” she said.

Whether Harteau inspired or orchestrated this turnout, or whether it was a combo platter, she produced an impressive urban coalition. In his closing remarks, Samuels said that as each citizen approached the mike to testify on Harteau’s behalf, he felt the urge “to walk out there and give you a hug.”

But the day before, in her office, Harteau seemed uncertain about who exactly was going to show up. She wondered if “maybe some of the Duy Ngo people would be there.” Ngo is the Minneapolis police officer who was shot by a fellow Minneapolis cop while working undercover in 2003. He eventually settled with the city for a record $4.5 million in 2007 before committing suicide in 2010.

His death has become an avatar for the shadowy blemishes lingering within Dolan’s department—one marked by misconduct, excessive-force settlements, charges of discrimination, and secretive dismissals. There was the Gang Strike Force that was shut down in 2011 and the five black officers who filed suit saying their careers have been blocked by the MPD, among others.

But none of that stuff came up at Harteau’s hearing. Not one dissenting voice approached the mike. It was a new day for the department. The proud debut of its new feminine, brown, gay face.

After the committee voted unanimously to recommend Harteau’s confirmation for the position for which she had been nominated, a group made its way to a conference room where Harteau deftly answered questions from the press. She was pure grace in front of the microphone. “Sometimes a cop isn’t very good at asking for help, but we need to work together,” she said, rocking the same Joan Jett ’80s haircut she wore (only less spiky and with subtle blond soccer- mom streaks) back when she covered Pat Benatar songs in a Hibbing bar.

Here she was, Chief Harteau, a lead singer who had found her stage. A rock star of a police chief, playing exactly the sort of tune Minneapolis wants to hear. It felt like the beginning of one of those E! Behind the Music shows.