Hennepin Chief Judge Todd Barnette is Frey’s nominee for Minneapolis community safety commissioner

Hennepin County Chief Judge Todd Barnette is Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s nominee to serve as the city’s next community safety commissioner, the mayor announced Monday.

Barnette, who was elected chief judge of Hennepin County District Court in 2020, previously served as an assistant chief judge and District Court judge and spent more than a decade as an attorney in the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office. He was the first person of color to be named chief judge in Hennepin County.

Frey hailed Barnette as a “rare talent” with a grasp of managing large operations, deep experience in the justice system and ties to the community. If confirmed by the City Council, Barnette will oversee a large swath of the city bureaucracy and become the public face of police and community safety reform.

Barnette expressed humility and optimism about the opportunity to spearhead a transformation in public safety while at the epicenter of the reckoning over policing and race relations.

“I don’t think that I would have taken it without really looking at: ‘Can we be successful?'” Barnette told the Star Tribune. “For so long we’ve just talked and talked and talked around issues, and ever since George Floyd’s murder, I think we’ve seen a different way in which citizens are demanding change.”

Barnette must still be confirmed by the City Council, which is expected to hold at least one public hearing before voting.

If selected, Barnette will fill the role vacated earlier this month by Cedric Alexander, who stepped down after serving just over a year as the city’s first community safety commissioner. Since Sept. 1, the role has been filled on an interim basis by Lee Sheehy, a veteran public servant who was not a candidate for the permanent position.

When asked whether he would commit to serving longer than a year, Barnette responded, “for sure,” and Frey said he chose Barnette with the intent he would stay for longer. The official appointment would be for a four-year term.

The Office of Community Safety and the commissioner position were created last year as part of a move to change public safety in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder. The commissioner, with a staff of eight or so, answers directly to the mayor and oversees the city’s five emergency departments: police, fire, emergency management, 911 and neighborhood safety (formerly known as the Office of Violence Prevention).

Chief judge

Taking over a sprawling governmental organization at a pivotal moment isn’t new to Barnette, who ascended to become the county’s chief judge in the midst of the pandemic and the aftermath of Floyd’s murder by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Barnette coordinated the trials of Chauvin and other officers charged in connection with Floyd’s murder, a task that included balancing demands over security, international media coverage and the community’s demands for transparency.

The court system includes as many as 63 judges and more than 500 employees.

Life experience

A native of Washington, D.C., Barnette, 57, said he grew up “in the middle of the crack cocaine epidemic,” and addiction gripped his own father. His first memories of Minnesota are visiting his father, who was imprisoned in Sandstone.

He said he considers it relevant experience “just knowing, from an early age, about the criminal justice system and its impact on families.”

He settled in Minnesota after graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School.

In 2007, he took over Hennepin County Drug Court, a tenure that resulted in longtime relationships with people who entered his life as offenders but now remain as friends.

One was K.G. Wilson, a longtime Minneapolis peace activist who left activism in 2021 after his 10-year-old granddaughter, Aniya Allen, was killed by gunfire.

Years before — Wilson says he can’t remember when it was — Wilson graduated from Barnette’s drug court, an event memorialized in a photograph Wilson brought with him to City Hall Monday, where he watched through tears as Frey introduced Barnette.

“The other people didn’t give me a chance, but he did,” Wilson said afterward, explaining that, in Drug Court, Barnette told Wilson he believed he was capable of more — and convinced Wilson he was. “I’ll forever be thankful to him. … He’s a gift to Minnesota.”

What’s his plan?

Barnette didn’t offer specifics Monday about how he plans to tackle particular challenges.

For example, when asked about the Police Department’s staffing levels, which have fallen to historic lows, Barnette smiled and said “right there,” pointing over his shoulder to Police Chief Brian O’Hara, who was attending with other department heads.

He added that he understood the nationwide challenge of staffing and recruitment shortfalls across the criminal justice system but especially in police departments. But he later emphasized, “I’m not the fire chief or the police chief,” and that he saw the commissioner’s job as coordinating between departments and with outside agencies more than prescribing specific tactics.

But, if confirmed, he said, he would have a basic task at hand.

“My plan is to build a culture of trust. … There’s no quick fix.”

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