When Janeé Harteau became Chief Harteau in 2012, she achieved three milestones: first female, first lesbian and first Native American to lead the Minneapolis police force. The firsts mattered little to Harteau personally. That they mattered a whole lot to many others is significant to the 49-year-old leader.
“There was no significance to me personally, but I am learning that these firsts come with enormous responsibility and that people are looking to me because of the firsts,” Harteau said. “I knew it would be somewhat of a deal to be the first female chief but I didn’t realize what a big deal.”
Harteau regularly gets stopped on the street for photos, autographs or just thank-yous. A mother who thanks her for being a role model, an older woman who never thought she’d see the day, a Native American who is proud, men who identify as minorities.
“An African-American man, a bus driver, stopped me the other day and said ‘Hey, you are the chief. I want to get a picture with you.’ I feel like people who have generally had minority class status identify with me and feel this helps them, even if we are not in the same ethnicity [or gender].”
That ability to connect with disparate parts of the diverse Minneapolis community – Harteau is regularly invited to speak with community groups – is seen by supporters as one of Harteau’s strengths. She agrees that having a woman who is a Native American and a lesbian in leadership has impact because it tells typically minority groups: We can be police officers and chiefs.
“It gives them connection with the police chief. … They do not have to know me to identify with me,” she said. “The Police Department is now a part of them because of that connection. That helps build public trust and build diversity. It’s opened the door, and now we have to have mechanisms in place for people to walk through.”
Seeing diverse groups invite the chief to speak is a good start in that direction, she said. Diversifying the police force – ethnically and from a gender standpoint – is among her goals for the department. Currently, the force is 15 percent female and about 20 percent minority. Minneapolis’ population is about half female and 40 percent minority.
Harteau began her career in the Minneapolis Police Department in her early 20s, and she has held nearly every position. She spent time building relationships in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, where she was the inspector of the First Precinct. Many of the Somali elders who lead that community and who live in that precinct testified on her behalf when she was appointed chief by Mayor R.T. Rybak.
Harteau has not only stood as a role model female leader in her day-to-day work but also in her fight against sexual harassment. She and her partner (now wife), who also works in the Police Department, successfully fought against some officers by filing a sexual harassment suit years ago.
Harteau believes that female leadership – not necessarily hers in particular but women heading organizations in general – often brings something different and sorely needed to companies and departments like hers.And she is quick to point out that not all women or all men fit into a certain box.
“I think women generally have a greater capacity for empathy … realizing that every decision has a human impact,” she said. “I think women have the ability to check their ego at the door and roll up their sleeves and get the work done regardless of credit.”