All Things Considered

Minnesota state patrol chief reflects on 25 years of service ahead of transition

Minnesota State Patrol highlights a campaign to promote hands-free driving
Col. Matt Langer of the Minnesota State Patrol and other officials at a news conference in the summer of 2019 to highlight the statewide campaign to get motorists ready for the new hands-free cell phone requirement.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

In a little over a month, State Patrol Col. Matt Langer will close out 25 years with the agency including 10 years at the helm.

During his tenure, he helped make Minnesota roads the third safest in the country while also enduring criticism and lawsuits over his department's response to protests in the summer of 2020.

He leaves the department at an equally challenging time and he shared his reflections ahead of his transition into his new role with the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The following is a transcription of the audio heard using the player above, lightly edited for clarity.

I want to mention first, the memorial service for three first responders: Two officers in Burnsville and a paramedic. You were at the memorial and you were involved as the state patrol in the planning of the procession and all of that. But what was going through your mind through all of that?

I mean, the only word that comes to mind is sad. It’s brutal. It was emotional. It’s difficult and Minnesotans ought to really think about it and not stand for what happened that morning.

Many people did think about it and turned out along the route. What does that say?

It confirms what I’ve known my whole life. Minnesotans support their police. They enjoy the work that the police do to make communities safe. And I think those tragedies like the one we saw in Burnsville double down and reinforce the fact that Minnesotans support the police.

Why leave the department now?

That’s a good question. It’s very difficult. It’s been 100 percent my decision. I’ve faced no pressure. In fact, it’s the opposite. I’ve faced nothing but sort of pressure to stay in the role.

But this is an opportunity that is too good to pass up. It’s for an outfit that I believe in. I believe in the mission, just like I do of the state patrol. I believe in their leadership similar to how I felt about the state patrol for my entire career.

It’s with the International Association of the Chiefs of Police, right?

Correct. It’s the director of global policing.

Right now, we have a situation where a state patrol trooper is facing murder charges in the death of Ricky Cobb II. The Hennepin County Attorney says in that case, the use of force was not justified. I’m wondering what does the Londregan case tell us about police accountability today?

The job of policing is incredibly hard. One of the things I’ve talked about lately is you can be a fraction of a second on either side of the head of a pin. And on one fraction of a second, you’re dead. We saw that in Burnsville. The other fraction of a second, some would say you ought to be held accountable in the criminal system.

The reality is that policing on the head of a pin is impossible. And when I talk about that with people, they recognize and they embrace it. They say you’re right. So, one of the things that I’ve really reflected on is how do we widen that margin between death and criminal charges, because that keeps people safer. Everyone involved is safer. But right now, there is no margin. And that’s an impossible predicament.

Do you have an answer? Or have you been working on an answer about how to widen that margin?

Well, I think the number one thing we could do is to try to develop mutual respect amongst one another in society. That’s not necessarily police and non-police. That’s everybody.

Go around a little bit, you realize that people seem to be edgy, they seem to be sort of cagey. And a lot of the interactions that happen with the police start in a way that could have been better.

I’m not casting any blame on any one individual. But the more that people cooperate, the more that they’re reasonable, the more that they listen to the police and they follow the commands of the police, the safer that incident is going to end.

Does it have to be a two-way street? I’m thinking here that there seems to be more accountability. I noticed you’re wearing a body camera here in the studio and everywhere you go when you’re on duty. Is that building trust?

Yeah, I think that’s a good question. I mean, it certainly increases transparency. But you know, in Minnesota, it’s interesting because the law only allows body worn camera video to be shown in a case of deadly force.

So, we have amazing cases every single day in Minnesota where that body worn camera shows the best of the best — and nobody sees it. So, we’re abundantly transparent only in cases of tragedy, not in cases that are magnificently heroic. That’s the piece about trust. Relationships are always a two-way street.

In the 10 years you’ve been chief, we saw unrest — unprecedented unrest in Minneapolis back in 2020. Since then, there’s been a report that says the state’s response wasn’t quick enough and yet there were instances of troopers roughing up members of the media resulting in settlements. When you look back, realizing hindsight is always 2020, are there things that you learned or that would be done differently if, God forbid, something like that happened again?

Well, I think the most dangerous person is often the one who says, “Nope, I’d do it the same again.” Those are dangerous people in any walk of life. So, I’ve always been one that reflects really deeply on everything that I do, everything that I say.

For me personally, yeah, there’s times over the course of my leadership tenure that I look back and think I should have handled that a little bit better, that conversation could have gone a little differently.

That’s who I’ve been. That’s who I’m always going to be. I’m harsh on myself. It keeps you humble, and it keeps you honest.

Tell us what’s next for you after 25 years with the Minnesota State Patrol and what you’re looking forward to?

Well, it’s super hard to leave. The people at the state patrol are incredible. They have a servant’s heart, they give it all. They give their heart, their soul and their personal safety to do this job. And it’s amazing. They’re dedicated professionals.

So, leaving them is hard. I’m not leaving the mission because there’s a traffic safety component in my new job, which is compelling. Some of the operational reality, the 24/7 nature of the state patrol, I will miss it. But at the same time, it’ll be an adjustment to go into a non-operational role.

And then getting outside the scope of Minnesota will be fun, too. Minnesota is a very diverse state, top to bottom in every way that you can define diversity. But this is a totally different opportunity to look way beyond Minnesota. We’re talking Taiwan, Colombia and everywhere in between related to traffic safety in the work of the IACP. So, that’s a challenge. It’s learning new things and it’s a growth opportunity that I’m looking forward to.