Kelly McCarthy

My View as a Police Chief: A Conversation with Kelly McCarthy

Thanks to Valvoline Instant Oil Change across Northern Minnesota, and Family Tree Clinic for making our gender-based violence coverage possible.

Photo Sarah Whiting

One of the interviewees in our group conversations suggested that we talk to Mendota Heights police chief Kelly McCarthy, who has been part of the ongoing STOP [Services, Training, Officers, and Prosecutors] grants team. STOP grants are supported at state levels by the Department of Justice to strengthen the criminal legal system’s response to violence against women. The team looks at what works and what doesn’t to support victims of intimate partner violence, including interventions and healing circles.

How did you get into the criminal legal system?

I was one of those dumb kids who at five years old knew I wanted to be a cop. My grandmother was a police officer. I started in Lino Lakes in 1999, had the opportunity to come to Mendota Heights in 2016, and was named the chief of police here in 2017.

What do you see as strengths and weaknesses in responding to domestic violence situations?

I think law enforcement has a role in stabilizing any violent or potentially violent situations. But as a society, we have to have an honest conversation about what the role of police is.

What makes police officers unique to any other profession is that we are authorized to use violence on behalf of the state. That’s it. A community service officer can do all the things I can do, with the exception of actually physically arresting you, or using violence against you. So what we bring to the table is that we can physically stabilize a violent situation and hopefully prevent it from escalating — and create official documentation of what happened.

Cops don’t repair harm, we just hopefully stop things from getting worse in the moment. We need to recognize that, then step away and let other services do what is in their lane of expertise.

We have a great model with mental health: Travis’s Law. If you call 911 and are having a mental health crisis, and it’s nonviolent, and it’s not criminal, there needs to be an alternative rather than me showing up with a gun. Because of that law, we were able to reduce law enforcement response to mental health calls by 70 percent in Dakota County.

Editor’s Note: Travis’s Law was enacted in 2018 after two years of efforts by loved ones of Travis Jordan, who was killed by Minneapolis police who responded to a 911 call after Jordan had threatened suicide. It is part of a new Minnesota public safety bill that requires 911 operators to refer mental health calls to crisis teams where available.

If dispatchers and telecommunicators are trauma informed, they know what questions to ask: “Are you in danger right now? No? Then we will have an advocate come to your home.”

There is no connection between mental illness and violence, but there is a strong connection between intimate partner [conflicts] and violence. So that gets to be a little sticky, but there’s nothing to stop cops from stabilizing a scene, bringing in those experts, and letting them do the engagement. We just handle the safety.

Historically, we haven’t asked the victim what they want. Do they want a police response? If she just wants him out of the house for the night, cops can do that, but he goes to jail. It is about acknowledging the agency of people who have been victimized, and working with them to figure out the best solution — being able to have a conversation in situations even when the offender is in the room.

We also have to know in that situation that if the wrong decisions are made, there is liability that comes back to the cops involved, which is another complexity.

I would like to see these cases prioritized so they are resolved within a week. There should really be instant resolution with services as soon as possible with a focus on actually repairing the harm. Right now, we are currently nowhere in terms of gender-based violence calls having the same new intervention options as mental illness calls.


Can you talk about the mandatory arrest law?

In 1984, results of the Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment were published, based on work that started in Duluth in 1980, that started to set policy around the country.

One group of Minneapolis cops did mandatory arrests of at least one person in a domestic violence call — so we wouldn’t just leave with no resolution — and another group did not. They concluded mandatory arrests were the right thing to do. Minnesota state statute now says that under certain conditions, a police officer is required to make an arrest. We do not have discretion when it comes to domestic violence.

Historically, I understand that policing as a profession misused our discretion about whether or not to arrest someone in the home for a domestic violence call — that is why we have mandatory arrests today. However, there are many times that we go into a situation and arrest is not what is going to make the situation better. But we don’t have a choice, because of state law. So sometimes we arrest one or both of the parties involved in a call. It is the legal thing to do, but it is not the right thing to do.

I understand why, because otherwise we tended to sweep it under the rug as a private family matter, but I think the pendulum has swung enough that we could have a different conversation with victims and impacted communities and families to consider a state statute change. But good luck finding legislators who want to be seen as soft on domestic violence.

We also have to acknowledge the human bias that can creep into situations as sensitive as sexual assault. Imagine a victim who tells a cop that she passed out at a party, woke up, and could tell that someone she was with had sex with her while she was unconscious. A male officer sitting across from her might be thinking, “I did that to a girl in college, and I’m not a rapist.” Or you might have a female officer sitting across from her thinking, “That happened to me in college, and I’m not a rape victim.”

The more we talk openly in society about the human responses that go into these situations, the more we can create checks and balances.

Few people are trauma informed. Cops can get frustrated. People who have never been in the situation don’t understand why a victim would let him back in the house if violence has occurred.

Then you think about how under-reported intimate partner violence is. You have to tell some stranger who comes into your house, with your four kids there, what happened — who might simply suggest you move out. It’s a complex situation that needs experts at the helm. We’re not there yet.

Can we teach nonviolence to people who have been abused?

My immediate thinking is to bristle when I hear that hurt people hurt people. It is true. But why can most women figure out not to abuse everybody around us?

My aunt Amy is the smartest person I’ve ever met. She is in recovery for heroin addiction, and has been for 30 years. Witnessing the height of her addiction, and having very open conversations with her, she said the only thing that ever made her reflect on her situation was when police officers treated her kindly. So we have an emphasis at the Mendota Heights Police Department: Just don’t be a dick.

I can’t think of any other crime where we punish the victim to the extent that we do in domestic violence. We tell victims of gender-based violence that if you want to feel safe, you need to leave your house.

If we’re going to exert any force or pressure, it needs to be on the offender and not on that victim.

It costs nothing to be compassionate. We often talk about the fact that the people who need us the most are the people it is hardest to serve. They are cussing us out, or they are distrustful. How do we dial into that piece of us that understands that we’re all connected? How do you want your sister treated when she’s here for a DUI? How do you want your brother treated when he’s arrested?

I think compassion and empathy are the two most important skills in a police officer. I think it’s how we see our way out of the issues we’re in right now.