Q&A with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on stopping police violence

By: - October 30, 2023 5:30 am

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announces a lawsuit against subcontractor Property Maintenance and Construction for obstructing an investigation by state officials into workers’ claims of wage theft on Oct. 25, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison recalled tears splashing on the screen of his phone in 2020, as he watched the video of the murder of 46-year-old George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. 

“When I first saw the video, I was stunned by it. I watched it. I watched it again, I watched it again. I started counting how many times George Floyd called for his mother, asked to breathe. I noticed that he never got belligerent with the officer. He never cussed the officer. He just said ‘Mr. Officer, sir, please, sir,’ and he was pleading with them,” Ellison said. “Then I noticed I had tears falling on the face of my cell phone, and I didn’t even realize that was happening” 

Floyd’s death sparked many weeks of protests and ongoing conversations about how to stop police violence nationwide, including in Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

In the three years since Floyd’s death, conversations about how to change policing to address violence have remained divisive. Wisconsin state leaders have adopted incremental steps to reform policing, disagreeing on the merits of “defunding the police” and, recently, stepping up funding for law enforcement and putting police officers back in schools.

Ellison led the prosecution of Derek Chauvin and three other former police officers after taking over the case from the county attorney at the direction of the Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. He kept a detailed diary during the trial and in his recent book, Break the Wheel: Ending the Cycle of Police Violence, he retraces the case and examines what can be done to address police violence in the U.S.

In an interview with the Wisconsin Examiner, Ellison, who has long supported criminal justice reform measures, speaks about the Floyd case, his ideas for ending police violence and his ongoing work as attorney general.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

You served in Congress from 2007 to 2019. What made you decide to go back to working at the state level as attorney general? 

I wanted to be more relevant to what people were living through. I thought that it would be a better way to have a positive impact on the people who work hard every day. I think that beat at the state level has so much more to do with helping them than being in Congress. 

I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t respect Congress, but Congress, first of all, you need 280 people to do anything, and you can see that by the mess that the Republicans have themselves in trying to choose the speaker… Being effective in Congress is very hard, and it takes a long time to get the level of influence that you will need to move anything. 

I helped to pass a lot of important bills … but at the end of the day, you can pass whatever law you want, but if you don’t enforce that law, it’s almost as if it wasn’t written. There were consumer laws before the Wall Street Reform Act, but nobody was enforcing them. 

What better job than the attorney general, where I get to make sure that people can afford their lives. I put myself in a position where I can sue companies who are using their market power to drive up the cost of insulin, for example. I started a wage theft unit to try to get good wages back that were owed to people that weren’t paid. The world might have heard about the [George] Floyd case, but we do a lot of stuff besides that, and most of what it means is that, you know, Miss Johnson can afford her rent and get paid all that she deserves.

Did you imagine after seeing the video that you would take over the Floyd case?

I didn’t know what role we were going to play. I knew that we had an able county attorney who was in place. In Minnesota, the county attorney has the first shot at the crimes that are gonna happen in their county, so I didn’t know what to say. I did let them know that if he needs anything, we’re here to help, and by the end of the week, you know, he invited me to work on the case with him and by the weekend, [Gov. Tim Walz] said, “Well, he can help you, but this is your case.”

It’s not typical for officers to be convicted in cases of police violence, what made the difference in the Floyd case?

A lot of factors. The first is that I was assigned the case. The way that the complaint was written, it looked to me like whoever wrote the complaint was on Derek Chauvin’s side. As the county attorney, he supervises the staff, he doesn’t actually do the case, but the case was assigned to a prosecutor and the complaint that they drafted was crazy. We ended up increasing the charges for all four [officers], and then we wrote the complaint to make it look like we were serious about holding Derek Chauvin and the others accountable, so that was the first thing that happened. 

The other thing that happened is we made sure that we could prove that Derek Chauvin was, essentially, suffocated, denied oxygen. They would try to say that, maybe, he was on drugs or, maybe, he died from just the stress of being arrested or maybe it was because of his comorbidities… The bottom line is they were all ready to try to say that something else happened besides what the world saw, right? The first press communication from the Minneapolis Police Department was that George Floyd, who was inebriated, died in a medical emergency. It didn’t mention force. They started trying to do a number on George Floyd from the very beginning.

What does the Floyd case tell us about how the way we handle police violence can — and should — change?

We just have to say we have one standard of justice, not two. We don’t have one standard of justice for civilians and another standard of justice for people whose responsibility it is to protect and serve.

There has been a system of impunity when it comes to police officer-involved deaths. It’s a demonstrable, provable fact, and so I think that policing will be better if we have high standards for policing. Derek Chauvin had 18 prior excessive force complaints, and Derek Chauvin was the field training officer for one of the officers who ended up getting in trouble.

We just have to say we have one standard of justice, not two. We don’t have one standard of justice for civilians and another standard of justice for people whose responsibility it is to protect and serve.

– MN AG Keith Ellison

You ask in your book “How do we break the wheel of police violence and finally make it stop?” Were you able to answer that question? 

No. 1, you just have to prosecute crime. If police commit crimes, they must be prosecuted. The problem is one of impunity. Are you familiar with that term?

Would you go ahead and explain it?

Impunity is when something is illegal, but there is a custom of exempting people who do it from punishment… Some people have to abide by the law and others don’t based on status, based on custom, based on how our society treats some people and treats other people. 

We’ve had a system of impunity when it comes to officers to use excessive force. Here’s the thing, a police officer is legally entitled to use force and you can only hold a police officer accountable if you prove that an officer’s use of force was unreasonable. Now that’s the state of the law, but there are cases where the officer’s conduct was clearly unreasonable. You take Breonna Taylor, there was one of the officers on video [who] admitted that he didn’t even know he was shooting at anyone… You’re shooting an unarmed woman in their home and you don’t know it. Now, that’s unreasonable in my opinion. I think a trained officer is responsible for the discharge of his or her firearm, and if you shoot somebody, you ought to be able to explain.

You said you had three points for addressing police violence, what are the other two points?

You’ve got to impose administrative discipline in a quick, fair way, and you’ve got to amend. You’ve got to train. 

The problem is not that [Chauvin] was poorly trained, because I think he probably was well trained. He just learned that he operated with impunity, so he did what he wanted to do, believing that he would never be held accountable for his actions. I believe that if you hold people accountable, and then use administrative tools to maintain high standards, then you can train and people will listen, because they know that there’s consequences. If you take a guy like Derek Chauvin, and you put him in implicit bias training. I think he’s gonna think it’s all a big joke.

What about “defunding the police”?

“Defund the Police” was an emotional reaction to a horrendous situation, but it was not a sound policy prescription. If you go to countries that have much less violence and less incarceration in the United States, they still have police. There’s police in Norway. There are police in Sweden, there’s police in Finland… But what you’ve got to do is to say if you commit a crime, you’re going to be held accountable, just like anyone else. 

You’ve got to also reduce crime overall. One of the reasons that police brutality happens is because police are being aggressive because the police are usually told to be aggressive to stop crime. That’s why you got the SCORPION unit in Memphis, Tennessee, so the SCORPION unit goes out and kills Tyre Nichols [in 2023].

“Defund the Police” was an emotional reaction to a horrendous situation, but it was not a sound policy prescription.

– MN AG Keith Ellison

I think you’ve got to deal with crime differently. You’ve got to do more crime prevention. What does that mean? That means you need more mental health, you need more job programs for young people. It means companies like Kia and Hyundai have got to fix their cars so that they’re not so easy to steal. It means that we’ve got to hold negligent gun dealers accountable who just sell on to any straw purchaser who shows up… We do need to create a more just society that will reduce crime, but I disagree with some of what you call the abolitionists, who want to get rid of prisons and police.

What role does the state government play in making these changes and enforcing them?

The state government certainly helps set the tone. What role do they play? Everything from making sure that we have good housing policy to making sure we have statewide licensing requirements for police to making sure that they observe those and respect them. There’s a whole wide range of responsibilities in the state… Local officials also have a very important role to play.

How do you engage in conversations about a path forward on police violence?

There’s no super smooth way forward. It is going to be a lot of conversation, and some disagreement, and then if things are not working, we’re going to have to amend them again. This is how democracy works. We do need people to help maintain order and safety. We also need the people who maintain that safety to abide by the law.


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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.