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Lead prosecutor in Chauvin case reflects on police reform

Keith Ellison, attorney general of Minnesota, spoke at the University of Miami as part of the School of Law’s Alan S. Becker and Gary A. Poliakoff Preeminent Leaders in Law Speaker Series.
Keith Ellison
Keith Ellison, attorney general of Minnesota, discussed the Derek Chauvin trial and police reform during a lecture at the University of Miami. Photo: Jenny Abreu/Special to University Communications

The two photographs that Minnesota Atty. Gen. Keith Ellison displayed side-by-side on a screen inside the University of Miami’s Shalala Student Center on Wednesday evening were separated by 100 years.

In one, the bodies of two Black circus workers, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, hang from a streetlight in downtown Duluth, Minnesota, on June 15, 1920. The body of Elias Clayton lay on the ground nearby. A white mob of hundreds, wielding bricks and heavy timbers, had stormed the Duluth jail and lynched the three men after a 19-year-old white woman accused them of raping her. 

In the other, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is seen pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck on May 25, 2020. Floyd, who cried out that he couldn’t breathe, died after the encounter. 

“You might think, ‘Why would Ellison put that image in front of us?’ ” he said to an in-person audience of about 75 people and many more watching online as part of the inaugural lecture in the School of Law’s Alan S. Becker and Gary A. Poliakoff Preeminent Leaders in Law Speaker Series. 

Ellison, who led the successful prosecution of Chauvin, said he displayed the images “because what I want to tell you from an African American historic perspective is they’re the same. That’s a lynching in Duluth, Minnesota, and this is a human being down here, too.” 

Chauvin wore a badge and was sanctioned by law, Ellison pointed out. In Duluth a hundred years ago, police allowed a mob to pull three Black men from their jail cells and lynch them. 

“It’s important that we have a conversation about a critical issue facing our nation, a critical issue that is historic, a critical issue that is nationwide, a critical issue that has resulted in tremendous social and economic disruption in our society. And that issue is the conflict between police and communities, particularly communities of color,” Ellison said.

In his nearly hour-long talk, he addressed everything from the lessons learned during the Chauvin trial to the importance of implementing police reform. 

“I know that folks want to talk about the Chauvin case, but this situation is so much deeper, so much older, so much more historic than one case,” he said. “If I were to plunge into that case, I fear that you would say, ‘You guys won. That solved it, right?’ Absolutely not. All [the Chauvin] case represents is accountability for one person who violated the law. It does not represent justice. The job of justice is our job, which is why I say it’s a time for action.” 

He called on law enforcement agencies across the country and federal, state, and municipal governments to have “courageous conversations as to how we create liberty and justice for all.” And Ellison, who represented Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives for 12 years before giving up that seat to run for attorney general, detailed his own efforts at fostering police reform. 

A year before he ever heard the name George Floyd, he and John Harrington, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, conducted a series of public hearings and working groups with law enforcements officers and community activists over a seven-month period to discuss strategies to reduce deadly force encounters between residents and police in his state. 

Recommendations included training officers to be aware of current and historical racial trauma in communities, educating officers in mental health crises, and providing mental health and wellness check-ins to all peace officers every three years. They also included engaging with the public to review body-worn camera practices and policies. 

In all, the working groups came up with 28 recommendations and 33 action steps. 

“We did not do this working group in response to a tragedy,” Ellison said. “We said, ‘We’re not waiting around. Let’s do it now. Let’s talk about it now.’ We got some folks who spent 30 years in policing together with folks who are dyed-in-the-wool BLM [Black Lives Matter] members, and somehow, they had meaningful conversations. And I’m very proud of that. It can happen. Don’t think we can’t get these folks in the room.” 

He criticized Congress for failing to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. “They have just thrown their hands up and said they’re not going to take action. And that’s really sad,” Ellison lamented. 

“It’s not acceptable for Congress to say, ‘We tried,’ ” he said. “We have to demand that they get back at it, and you don’t have to be a Republican or Democrat or a liberal or conservative. You can be both and believe in liberty and justice for all in the rule of law.”

Ellison said the cycle of inaction on police reform can be broken—“if we act”—and he praised efforts at the municipal level, noting that departments in Ithaca, New York, and in Camden and Newark, New Jersey, have reimagined their police forces. 

“In all three of these cities, police are still responding to domestic violence, robbery in progress, and drug sales [calls], all the stuff that they ever do,” he said. “But they somehow have reduced the level of deadly force encounters with police. And they actually have done pretty well on stopping crime and even turning guns in.” 

Ellison also commented on the Defund the Police movement, calling it “a hashtag slogan that really has no old policy implications at all.” 

“I don’t support it. You don’t support it, probably. Yet, that moniker was lifted up as the deal. It’s not the deal. The Minneapolis Police Department in 2019 had a budget of about $193 million. Now, it’s about $200 million. So, defund where, what?” 

He pointed out that there have been some budget changes in that department, with funds being allocated for civilian crime reduction specialists and mental health dual response. “We have shifted people. It’s not a matter of how many police you have. It’s a matter of what are they doing?” Ellison said. 

He cited the fact that some $3 billion have been spent by cities across the country to settle police misconduct lawsuits during the past 10 years—money, he said, that could have been spent on better causes such as purchasing playground equipment and repairing streets and roads. 

Speaking to Miami Law students in the audience, he urged them to help. 

“A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society,” Ellison said. “You are either helping things get better or you’re not. Just because you’re some lefty public defender doesn’t mean that you are in the first category and not the second, if all you do is start shoving the sentencing guidelines in your client’s face before you even read the file. Whether you are in private practice or corporate practice, a corporate counsel, public lawyer, public defender, or prosecutor, we all can advance this cause of justice, and we all have a responsibility to do so.” 

After Ellison’s talk, he was interviewed onstage by Gary Rosen, managing shareholder and CEO of Becker & Poliakoff. Rosen asked Ellison if he had a sense of how focused the entire nation and world would be on the Chauvin case and what a powerful force for social change it would be. “Once we got that case, we put blinders on and focused. It became somewhat of a shock to see such attention. I did not apprehend or grasp the enormity of that moment, and I still don’t think I really do,” Ellison admitted.

Earlier in the day, Ellison taught School of Law professor Sergio Campos’s Elements class. “He used his own successful career in public service to demonstrate the various ways that lawyers can and do improve the lives of many in society. The students learned a great deal,” Campos said. 

He also met with Miami Law student leaders, including Reunie Faustin, the Caribbean bar chair of the Black Law Students Association. “His [Ellison’s] views on the power of community and the role communities could play in reforming our policing system echo many who wish to see more cooperation rather than hostility between the two groups,” Faustin said.