Climbing the ranks

Southwest’s Amelia Huffman becomes first woman to command Police Department’s Homicide Unit

Amelia Huffman never intended to make Minneapolis her home.

The Ohio native had only been to the city once — during a family road trip to Alaska when she was 13. 

“I remember it being sunny and very windy,” she said.

After graduating in 1994 from Smith College in Massachusetts where she studied constitutional law, Huffman was planning to go to graduate school. But her adviser sent her in a different direction that would take her back to the place she passed through as a girl.

“My adviser said, ‘You know what? You have your whole life to go to graduate school. Why don’t you do something exciting that you never imagined yourself doing, that you feel really passionate about and that will give you great stories to tell for the rest of your life,’” Huffman said.

She saw that the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) was looking for people with diverse backgrounds, so she applied, was hired and never left.

“I ended up coming to the conclusion that I wanted a job where I felt like it made a difference whether I came to work every day,” said Huffman, 35. “Not just that I was a warm body filling a desk and moving papers from one place to another.”

After 13 years of service, much of it spent in the 5th Precinct, Huffman has worked her way to one of the department’s most challenging jobs — commander of the Homicide Unit. She took over the position last month and is the first woman to do so in the department’s history.

 When Huffman started her career with the MPD, she lived and worked in the 5th Precinct.

She still remembers her first Minneapolis apartment in Stevens Square.

“It was the perfect location for a new college grad,” she said. “I didn’t have a car so I could walk everywhere and take the bus. I loved living in the precinct.”

She spent some time living in Uptown before moving to her current home in Kingfield, where she lives with her partner and two young daughters. Different positions with the police department took her in and out of Southwest for work, but Huffman has become a familiar face to many residents.  

One of her most recent positions was lieutenant of the 5th Precinct’s first sector, which includes the neighborhoods of Stevens Square, Loring Park, Whittier, Lowry Hill East, Lowry Hill, East Isles, Kenwood and Cedar-Isles Dean.

Marian Biehn, executive director of the Whittier Alliance, said Huffman had a strong relationship with the neighborhood organization during her time as lieutenant.  

“She was a good liaison between the precinct and the neighborhood,” Biehn said. “She was good at diffusing situations and being as candid as she could.”

Huffman attended regular community meetings to discuss crime trends and listen to neighborhood concerns. Biehn said the lieutenant was able to build a lot of trust among community members and seemed to genuinely respect what they had to say.

“We wish her well, but we miss her,” she said.

Huffman said she enjoyed the diversity of people and work in the 5th Precinct’s first sector, where people experiencing homeless could be found at shelters just a neighborhood away from some of the city’s most affluent residents.

But she left her position as lieutenant after about a year and a half to take on a new role unlike anything she had worked before.

Huffman has worked in a variety of positions including patrol officer and a member of the 5th Precinct’s community response team. She’s also investigated forgery fraud and child abuse and has done internal disciplinary investigations for the department.

Though she found child abuse investigations to be some of the most rewarding work she’s done, Huffman said every position she’s worked has helped her grow in some way.

“I have genuinely enjoyed every job I’ve had and learned something useful in all of them,” she said.

Huffman spent the last year of her career as spokeswoman for the department, a job she took after her time as lieutenant in the 5th Precinct. As spokeswoman, Huffman said she developed numerous relationships with community members, local media and a variety of agencies including the county attorney’s office, sheriff’s office and medical center that will help her as commander of the homicide unit.

After the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge last month, Huffman was thrown into a media frenzy and overcame camera fears to provide people throughout the world with constantly developing information. Huffman is humble about being the first woman commander of the homicide unit, a position she was recruited for.

“I don’t think it’s an issue that is particularly pertinent to the homicide investigators or the families or the community when it comes to homicide cases,” Huffman said. “The most important thing is that homicides get solved and that’s what I’m focused on.”

Huffman said there have always been women working in the homicide unit and the fact that none of them have been commander isn’t by design.

“It’s more of a fluke,” she said.  

Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said it’s meaningful that Huffman is the first woman homicide commander, but he wasn’t aware of that when making the decision to hire her. He said her performance as spokeswoman played a big role.

“The way she handled the position was just incredible and we wanted to bring her to a new level,” Dolan said.

Dolan said there’s no shortage of big egos in the homicide unit and “it takes special people to deal with that. She was one of those people.”  

Valerie Wurster, deputy chief of the police department’s investigations bureau, said Huffman’s new job is among the most coveted in the bureau.  

“It’s probably the premier investigative position with the Minneapolis Police Department,” she said.   

It’s a demanding job that requires round-the-clock dedication, Wurster said. When a homicide is reported, it’s Huffman’s job to get her team to the scene, get organized and start investigating. As an administrator, it’s also Huffman’s duty to figure out what her department needs in terms of equipment, training and other areas to do its job.

The commander of the homicide unit is constantly in the spotlight, Wurster said. Huffman will face intense public scrutiny in the highly visible position. Victims’ families and friends, onlookers and media swarms will be a common sight.  

Huffman takes the new position when homicides in Minneapolis are declining. Minneapolis has seen 33 homicides this year compared to 43 at this time last year. She’s hopeful the numbers stay down, but if they don’t, she’s ready.     

“Bringing closure for families and justice to the community is incredibly valuable work and I think that it will be a privilege to work with the community, with families and with homicide investigators who have a very difficult, very demanding, very scrutinized job and who have to be the best.”