Inspector Eddie Frizell, who has risen through the ranks during 26 years with the Minneapolis Police Department, is one of three finalists for the Seattle police-chief job. This is the second of our three profiles on the candidates.
MINNEAPOLIS — Since Eddie Frizell took over the Minneapolis Police Department’s First Precinct in December, violent crime has plummeted. The downtown precinct hosted a Super Bowl and officers have removed 50-plus guns from the streets. Business owners are so happy, a group recently began serving lunch to Frizell’s cops.
“Eddie has been extremely effective,” said Steve Cramer, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council.
But Frizell’s push to clean up the area also has stirred controversy, with the 55-year-old — one of three finalists for the job of Seattle police chief — overseeing a surge in undercover busts of small-time marijuana sales.
Seattle’s next police chief
The Seattle Times is profiling the three finalists to become the city’s next police chief following the resignation last year of Katherine O’Toole. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is expected to make her selection this month.
Last month, after county public defenders reported that 46 of the 47 people arrested were black and raised concerns about racial profiling, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey ordered a halt to the practice and charges were dismissed.
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Interim Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best is widely expected to win the job, according to sources familiar with the matter, thanks to a shake-up last weekend that saw Best replace former Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay as a leading contender.
Still, Frizell and Ely Reyes, an assistant chief in Austin, Texas, are visiting Seattle this week to meet with community groups and to be interviewed by Mayor Jenny Durkan.
Frizell, who holds the title of precinct inspector, makes no apologies for the Minneapolis marijuana busts, which he says came about as cops sought to break up a concentration of guns and harder drugs.
Instead, Frizell says his record shows he can boost safety in an urban core. In addition to using undercovers, he partners with homeless-outreach workers, business-district ambassadors and a group of volunteer dads who resolve street disputes.
“It’s absolutely ludicrous to believe that a black man is going to send his troops out there to target black youth for marijuana,” said Frizell, a colonel in the Minnesota Army National Guard who grew up in an Iowa town where John Deere tractors are made.
“We’re out here just fighting crime for the benefit of the families going to the Twins games and such,” the inspector added, referring to the Major League Baseball team.
The matter may prove instructive for Durkan as she considers whether Frizell is the right choice to lead 1,400 officers, cement police reforms and navigate City Hall.
A lineman-sized cop with an easy smile who began his 26-year career walking a beat, Frizell has risen through the ranks by connecting with community advocates, raising officer morale and delivering results, and he spent two years helping Minneapolis police implement reforms. The inspector also has seen his ascent set back while clashing with other police leaders.
Supporters say they appreciate his work ethic and straightforward approach, while cop watchers wonder whether he would deviate from the status quo.
A horse cop
Growing up, Frizell could have expected to spend his life “on the line” at John Deere in his hometown, Waterloo. His parents both worked there, and his sister still does.
The picture changed, Frizell says, when he took the ACT test “on a bet.” Accepted by the University of Iowa, he became the first member of his family to graduate from college.
Frizell came to policing by accident, recruited when working as a bouncer at a Minneapolis bar. The early 1990s were a scary time for a rookie in a city then known as “Murderapolis.” Gangs were warring and a cop had been assassinated on the job.
“I went to a homicide every day one summer,” the inspector remembered.
Frizell says the mayhem initially made him “an angry cop,” but his background gave him a special perspective. In Waterloo, where the force had been completely white, “My introduction to the police was being chased by them,” he said, describing how a particular officer had picked on him without reason when he was a young man.
The pair met under different circumstances years later, when a case led Frizell back to Waterloo. “Now he was talking to Sgt. Frizell,” he recounted, with relish.
That was a special moment for the Iowa kid, who developed a community-service officer program that helped his department recruit more young people of color.
Frizell’s other roles have included SWAT negotiator, internal-affairs investigator and Fifth Precinct inspector. But at heart, Frizell is a horse cop, having spent years with a mounted unit. The War College alumnus, who has deployed to Iraq and Bosnia, keeps an old saddle in his office, along with photos from African-American military history.
“I always rode these huge horses — warmbloods,” Frizell said enthusiastically, as he recalled “the various social disturbances me and my horse had to go through.”
Frizell’s career leapt ahead in 2012, the first instance in which he served as First Precinct inspector. Tapped to address spikes in robberies and assaults outside nightclubs, he beefed up patrols. Within months, he touted a decline in violent crime.
Today, Frizell is reprising that First Precinct role — to the delight of business and neighborhood leaders. Cramer, the Minneapolis Downtown Council president, says the inspector has engineered “a real turnaround, both in reality and perception.”
Driving through the precinct in an unmarked SUV, Frizell pointed to railings installed next to a light-rail station to discourage would-be thieves from preying on straphangers. The inspector says such changes can be considered “safety by environmental design.”
Frizell didn’t invent the concept; Seattle used such tactics and employed undercovers to make nearly 150 arrests during a similar drug-dealing crackdown in 2015.
But in the inspector’s Minneapolis precinct, where he reviews crime data each week during a meeting with business and social-services partners, there have been significant reductions: as of late June, violent crime was down 33 percent compared to the same period last year, a department analyst said.
“We’re more than six months into 2018 and we’ve had zero murders,” said lawyer Joe Tamborino, chairman of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association.
“Eddie understands how to address livability issues with a community response.”
Not everyone is so happy. After Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty learned dozens of people had been charged with felonies for selling one or two grams of weed to undercovers, her office wrote to Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.
All but one of the people arrested were black and many were homeless, according to Moriarty’s office, which wrote, “A review of the cases … strongly suggests a trend of racial profiling under the guise of a ‘livability’ detail.”
Arrests over drugs
When Mayor Frey ordered the busts to stop, Arradondo took responsibility, praising the intentions of the officers while acknowledging the disparities in who had been arrested.
Behind the scenes, Frizell pushed back, and his First Precinct officers gave Frey an earful when the mayor subsequently stopped by their station house, said Shane Zahn, director of safe initiatives for the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District.
Frizell says drug dealing can beget robberies and shootings, as hustlers compete for business. He says his cops worked with probation officers to identify people restricted by court order from being downtown — in line with the mayor’s downtown-safety plan.
“Why would I take my resources and go after small amounts of marijuana?” he said, bothered by the allegations of profiling. “I’m looking for guns. I’m looking for felons.”
Frizell couldn’t say whether any of the marijuana arrests resulted in guns being recovered. But the inspector bridled when asked about his officers conducting stings.
“Cops don’t walk up to people and say, ‘Hey, give me some weed.’ That’s straight out of ‘Starsky & Hutch’ — 1970s stuff. You put cops out there who blend into the terrain and they’re actively pursued and approached by drug dealers,” the inspector said.
“We have never done an marijuana sting. That is completely fabricated,” he added.
Moriarty begs to differ. In 29 cases, the people arrested were approached by the cops, she said, mentioning instances in which officers asked for marijuana using street names like “green” and “loud.” Frizell should admit the arrests were wrong, she says.
“In Minnesota, marijuana is essentially legal for people with privilege,” she said. “The police aren’t going to college campuses asking students to set them up with marijuana, so why can they approach black men and women downtown?”
Frizell could benefit from working in a metropolis with many similarities to Seattle. Though Minneapolis is smaller, with a population under 500,000, both are growing cities with policing challenges, diverse neighborhoods and homelessness problems.
Police union president Bob Kroll thinks Frizell would be able to get along with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, whose members have been working without a contract since 2014. The inspector is respected by the rank-and-file in Minneapolis, Kroll said.
“The guys like working for him,” the union head said, calling Frizell “a motivator.”
The inspector also is well regarded by neighborhood advocates because he shows up for meetings with small-business owners and chats with residents at community events, says Jana Metge, coordinator of Citizens for a Loring Park Community.
During Loring Park’s Pride Festival last month, she recalled, Frizell lingered to hear from people who were upset over a fatal shooting by police in another precinct,
“Eddie is a man of common sense,” Metge said. “People walk away smiling.”
Ryan SanCartier, an aide to City Councilmember Abdi Warsame — who represents a district that’s home to many East African immigrants — described Frizell as responsive, while Chris Knutson, a street-outreach worker at Saint Stephen’s Human Services, said Frizell has adopted a humane approach to unauthorized camps.
“The inspector has a really good understanding that poverty is the reason for homelessness,” Knutson said. “He’s not interested in busting panhandlers.”
Though Michelle Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality has spent decades protesting the Minneapolis police, her take on Frizell is mild.
The inspector once offered to help her set up a meeting and earned her vote when he ran for county sheriff in 2014 as a Democrat against a Republican incumbent, Gross said.
Yet activists in Seattle should harbor no illusions about Frizell, says Gross, who says First Precinct horse cops have at times terrorized clubgoers.
“Eddie is a nice guy,” she said. “I think he would be very community-facing and present. I just don’t seem him as a big cultural change agent.”
Ron Edwards, a longtime Minneapolis civil-rights activist, is harsher in his criticism. He says Frizell lacks judgment and has carried water for business organizations that in the past have been accused of not wanting to have black people hanging out downtown.
“The Chamber of Commerce thinks he’s great,” said Edwards, who first met Frizell when the cop was a kid in Waterloo. “Ed shoots too much from the hip.”
After his unsuccessful campaign for sheriff, Frizell was demoted from deputy chief of patrol back to lieutenant, with then-Chief Janeé Harteau citing problems with her executive team’s dynamics. He sued Harteau, claiming political retaliation, arguing she had wanted to appease the sheriff.
In dismissing the suit, the judge concluded Frizell had been dishonest when he told a reporter he didn’t understand why he had been downgraded. Even before the weekend shake-up in Durkan’s selection process, Frizell’s candidacy was in trouble due to questions about his leadership, including the judge’s ruling, the Seattle sources said.
Frizell led a domestic-assault unit after his demotion and says suing was a matter of honor. Reinstated as inspector by Arradondo, he has outlasted Harteau, who was pushed out last year.
When Frizell was named a Seattle contender, Arradondo expressed confidence the inspector would, if chosen, build “relationships of trust and accountability.”
“When your reputation is solid … your reputation will always rise above,” Frizell said.
A finalist for St. Paul police chief in 2016, Frizell sees the Seattle job as a chance to make a difference in a city much like Minneapolis.
“My wife is an art teacher and there’s a very art-centric culture in Seattle,” he said. “My 12-year-old son is going into junior high. There would be a nice transition for him.”
As Seattle strives to maintain compliance with a U.S. Justice Department consent decree requiring the police to curb excessive force, Frizell says he would improve collaboration with the civilian-led agencies that watchdog the cops.
“We would all have to sit at the table,” he said. “It sounds like they have been siloed, to a certain extent.”
In 2006 and 2007, Frizell served as an operations sergeant for mediation compliance — working with a committee of community leaders as the Minneapolis police — under Justice Department scrutiny — sought to carry out a list of 169 reforms, he says.
“We were one stop short of a consent decree … So I learned from the ground up” how to move past debate and achieve common ground, he said.