Minneapolis hires law firm to investigate complaints against police chief

The city of Minneapolis has hired an outside law firm to investigate three complaints filed against Police Chief Brian O’Hara, less than one year into his tenure.

All three complaints were filed with the Office of Police Conduct Review, a division of the Civil Rights Department that vets allegations of officer misconduct. Those complaints were then referred to the Office of the Commissioner of Community Safety (OCS) — as is standard under policy for formal complaints against a sitting chief — where leaders have discretion over whether to consult outside counsel.

“Due to the high rank of the position of chief, an external investigator would be used in order to preserve neutrality and investigator independence and avoid any potential conflicts of interest or power imbalance that could exist for lower-level staff having to investigate a City leader,” OCS spokesman Stan Alleyne said in a statement.

Mayor Jacob Frey cast the decision as a way to “help ensure a thorough, impartial accounting of the facts.”

The revelation comes at a crucial time for the embattled police department and O’Hara, a former Newark police officer touted as a “change-maker” capable of transforming public safety in Minneapolis following George Floyd’s murder. He took the job vowing to rebuild community trust while navigating a sweeping settlement agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and a pending consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The complaints, first reported by KSTP-TV, remain under investigation.

“The Chief was not aware of any specifics regarding open complaints against him until a recent media inquiry,” a department spokesman wrote in a statement. “He looks forward to fully cooperating with the outside investigation and feels confident that the investigation will resolve this matter and allow the department and city to move forward with the important work that needs to be done.”

City officials declined to comment on the nature of the complaints, citing personnel matters. However, four sources with knowledge of the investigation outlined them to the Star Tribune.

The first, filed in late November, pertains to an ‘unprofessional’ phone call O’Hara allegedly placed to the Edina Police Department seeking non-public records related to an MPD officer cited for fifth-degree assault.

Officer Sergio Villegas punched a man in the face Oct. 24 during an altercation at the officer’s Halloween party in Edina, according to a police report obtained by the Star Tribune. The male victim later pursued misdemeanor charges against Villegas. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office ultimately agreed to suspend its prosecution of Villegas, 28, if he paid $500 restitution to the victim and remained law abiding.

Shortly after Villegas disclosed the incident to MPD last fall, O’Hara reportedly called Edina police to demand the reports.Sources say he began yelling and cursing at the Edina officer on the phone.

The second complaint stems from a use of force by O’Hara earlier this winter, in which he never filed a report. The complaint does not disclose what level of force was allegedly used or in what context.

Officers of any rank should be conditioned to file reports disclosing any force used in the field — from pulling a handgun to placing a person in handcuffs — said Mylan Masson, a retired Minneapolis police officer and use of force expert.

“He should have known,” said Masson, who applauded the city’s decision to seek an outside investigator in this case. She noted that given O’Hara’s tendency to respond to crisis calls and patrol alongside rank-and-file officers, he is more likely to confront these issues.

T. Anansi Wilson, a law professor at Mitchell Hamline, called the allegations against O’Hara “disturbing.”

“He is the standard bearer,” said Anansi, noting that O’Hara is tasked with leading by example and disciplining officers who stray from protocol. Misconduct like this can be “a huge distraction and disservice” to critical reform efforts, he said.

The third complaint accuses O’Hara of being untruthful in public comments to the media regarding the hiring of officer Tyler Timberlake. MPD hired Timberlake in January, despite accusations that he assaulted an unarmed Black man while working as an officer in Fairfax County, Va.

Timberlake was charged with three misdemeanor counts of assault and battery in that case and later acquitted by a jury.

After the Minnesota Reformer uncovered Timberlake’s past, O’Hara said he was “extremely concerned” by the hire and vowed an internal investigation. Personnel records and emails revealed that O’Hara personally signed off on Timberlake’s hiring after sitting in on his interview.

The city terminated Timberlake in July — after which O’Hara claimed that he would not have signed off on such a recruit had he seen the video of the “critical incident.” In the aftermath, O’Hara faced intense backlash for contradicting public comments.

Nekima Levy Armstrong, civil rights lawyer and community activist, believes O’Hara should have been reprimanded by Frey in the same way that former Chief Medaria Arradondo and outgoing Community Safety Commissioner Cedric Alexander were for controversial public comments.

“To have the [police] leadership engaged in lying to the public on something of that nature is very concerning,” she said, pointing to a perceived double standard. “You’ve held these two Black men in high positions accountable; why is the Chief getting away with this?”

A spokeswoman for the mayor countered that those previous disciplinary cases involved public tweets and a press conference, rather than a “complex investigation involving multiple people, more than one department, and private data.”

In recent public comments, O’Hara has signaled that that not everyone within the agency is supportive of his efforts to overhaul the department — or even believe that Floyd was murdered.

That’s led some police reform activists to question whether the officers’ federation was somehow behind the complaints, as they have historically resisted attempts by top brass to make significant changes to department policy.

“It feels like a witch hunt by the union,” said Emma Pederson, a member of the watchdog group Communities United Against Police Brutality, who also served on the chief’s search committee last spring.

Minneapolis police union president Sgt. Sherral Schmidt categorically denied that.

“Not a witch hunt by me,” she told the Star Tribune via text. “I have nothing to do with the filing of these complaints.”

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