Change-maker takes over Southwest police precinct

Inspector Don Harris said he had already heard through the grapevine that some officers in the Minneapolis Police Department's 5th Precinct are nervous about his arrival because of his reputation for change.

Harris, the newly appointed top cop in Southwest, has led a number of departmental changes -- from adding an advocate in the family violence unit to changing recruitment procedures to hire more minority officers. However, as he takes the helm at the 5th Precinct, Harris said he has no immediate plans for change.

"I didn't come here with preconceived notions," he said, sitting behind his desk at 3101 Nicollet Ave. S. during his first week on the job.

Harris, a Golden Valley resident, took charge of the 5th Precinct Nov. 4. It is the second leadership change in less than a year. Randy Johnson held the job in the beginning of 2001. He retired and Lucy Gerold took over in January. Chief Robert Olson recently promoted Gerold to Deputy Chief.

Harris, 40, is married with three children and has served on the force since 1987. He spent his first two months in the 5th Precinct as a recruit, and spent the next nine years on the north side, first as a patrol officer and then as a sergeant, he said.

He then worked for internal affairs, which investigates complaints against officers. "It gave me a sense for some of the frustration people feel," he said.

He worked for internal affairs less than two years, then got promoted to lieutenant in charge of public housing, he said.

That is where he started building a reputation as a change-maker.

He changed the unit's focus away from catching narcotics dealers to community policing, he said. Instead of doing undercover work and talking to informants, officers were expected to be more visible and respond to resident needs, Harris said.

The move was controversial for some officers who took the public housing job "to find the mother lode" of drugs, he said. A number left the unit.

Mary Boler, assistant director for property management for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, said the change Harris oversaw was a natural shift. Police efforts and stepped-up lease enforcement had reduced serious drug offenses.

"They were able to change to the more community policing effort that continues today," she said. Harris "did a great job for us."

Harris next moved to lead the child abuse unit (which later became the family violence unit when it the merged with the domestic violence unit), he said. He saw "a disconnect" between what the investigative process delivered and what city and county attorneys said they needed to effectively prosecute cases.

County Attorney Amy Klobuchar said credits Harris with an instrumental role in bringing a victim advocate to the police department.

"This has been a great asset to our office, because the advocate assists officers in analyzing their cases and insuring that all injuries and evidence have been properly documented," she said.

Some in the unit did not want to have the attorney and advocate in the unit, a departure from traditional police procedures, Harris said.

"Trying to get them to do something different isn't easy to do," he said. "We overcame the resistance."

Harris also worked six months in the training unit trying to improve hiring people of color, he said.

The state and the city both have screening criteria for potential police candidates, he said. Under past procedures, even if a candidate met state criteria, the city's criteria could automatically eliminate them from consideration. Those city criteria included past minor offenses such as marijuana possession, within a certain time period.

Harris advocated allowing candidates who met all state criteria to continue through the background check stage. That would find out if those candidates had any mitigating circumstances, like getting treatment or a degree.

"We applied the (city) criteria in a different way," he said. "It was controversial within the unit."

As he takes the lead at the 5th Precinct, Harris said one of his core goals "is to bridge the gap between the police and the community."

He said he was still working out plans on how to best do community outreach and had nothing to announce yet.

If he sees changes that need to be made, he said would get everyone involved in making them.

"I don't want to shock people," Harris said. "But if something's got to change, it's got to change."

New property-crime unit leader

Lt. Susan Piontek, 48, a 21-year veteran of the force, became head of the 5th Precinct property crimes unit Nov. 4. She supervises seven investigators who work on burglaries, robberies, auto theft, theft from auto, missing persons and graffiti.

She decides which cases to investigate, assigns and oversees cases, and is the one to call the victim if the department lacks the evidence to open an investigation.

"I've enjoyed my career this far," she said. "I'm still having a heck of a lot of fun."

Piontek recites the property crimes mantra: Don't leave your laptop or cell phone in plain view in your car -- especially around the lakes. Keep tabs on your purse in the restaurant. Don't leave your car unattended while it warms up with the keys inside.

She started her Minneapolis police career on the north side in 1981, she said. She worked briefly as a property crimes investigator in the 5th Precinct in 1987 before transferring downtown, where she worked on child abuse, sex crimes and robbery until 1992.

She worked on department policies and procedures in Research and Development for two years before getting promoted to patrol lieutenant on the north side, where she worked until November.

Piontek lived in the Kenny neighborhood for 10 years, before moving to Savage. Her hobbies include walking the Lake Superior Hiking Trail.