ST. PAUL - Keith Ellison and cops … where to begin?
Let’s start with this: It’s complicated.
Some police officers speak well of Ellison on a personal level. And a number of county prosecutors are strong supporters. Several area police chiefs are allies of Ellison.
But to some - perhaps many - rank-and-file officers, Ellison is persona non grata.
This matters now because Ellison is about to become Minnesota’s attorney general, a post often described as the state’s highest law enforcement official.
As the passions subside from the November election - and Ellison’s battle against Republican Doug Wardlow was an impassioned contest - and as Ellison’s swearing-in next month approaches, there are signs that a reconciliation of sorts might be in the offing.
Ellison’s résumé is unprecedented for a Minnesota attorney general.
While Democrats have held the office since 1971, law-and-order centrists with backgrounds in civil litigation have been the norm. Current Attorney General Lori Swanson, for example, was previously assistant attorney general and state solicitor general, once received an A-plus rating from the NRA and has been skeptical of legalizing marijuana.
By contrast, Ellison is a firebrand liberal. As a congressman representing the Minneapolis-based 5th District, he became a frequent guest on cable-TV news outlets, a torchbearer of the left to champion progressive policies and a critic of Sean Hannity or, more recently, President Donald Trump.
Ellison was never a prosecutor. Quite the opposite.
Ellison was a criminal defense attorney in the 1990s. For cops, there’s strike one right there.
Ellison’s clients included gang members. Strike two.
Ellison also rallied to the defense of Sharif Willis, a convicted murderer and head of the Vice Lords who was implicated in the 1992 killing of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf.
That alone is three strikes for a lot of officers. But there’s more.
Ellison has also been a civil rights attorney and activist. Some might say agitator. He and several other Democratic members of Congress were willing to be arrested for civil disobedience in Washington, D.C., as part of a 2013 immigration-reform protest.
And, of course, he’s a black man in a time when police distrust runs high in the African-American community - and police think they are under unreasonable scrutiny as a result. When Ellison showed up during protests following the Minneapolis police shooting of Jamar Clark in 2015, his stated purpose was to try to foster respectful dialogue between police and Black Lives Matter demonstrators. But many officers didn’t see it that way, and they include that moment among their grievances.
“Keith Ellison has a long history, and it’s a negative history, with the Minneapolis Police Department. … I don’t wholeheartedly believe that (he respects law enforcement). I think he’s got a different agenda that, quite frankly is anti-law enforcement.”
Those were the words of Minneapolis police Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, on Nov. 2, shortly before the election. Kroll spoke during a news conference to voice support for Wardlow. He said he was speaking on behalf of some 900 cops and that the state’s largest police union “overwhelmingly” backed those sentiments.
But that was early November.
This month, Kroll struck a different tone in an interview with the Pioneer Press.
He suggested past isn’t necessarily prologue.
“He’s our attorney general now,” Kroll said. “You’ve got to try to work with him and not against him. Hopefully, he’ll find that role. He sees it as best for him to mend fences and move forward, and so do we.”
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said the perennial criticisms of Ellison as anti-law enforcement are outdated and reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the man.
“I’d be willing to bet that many of them haven’t had the opportunity to sit down with him and see what he’s really like,” said Choi, a Democrat who said he’s gotten to know Ellison over several years and publicly supported him during the contentious campaign. “He doesn’t have hostile views toward law enforcement.”
While Ellison has often captured the spotlight with his rhetoric, Choi said that behind the scenes, Ellison is more deliberative and humble than many would suspect -- important skills for an attorney general.
“He’s a genuine and sincere listener,” Choi said. “He ... approaches situations with humility and a desire to learn. If you do that, you’re going to respect people in the office and be open to new ideas.”
Then Choi added: “You know, the criminal piece is a very small piece of it.
The highest-profile aspects of the attorney general’s office usually revolve around consumer protections, like cracking down on fly-by-night home repair operations or scammers. The office will sue large entities in the name of the people of the state, such as when former Attorney General Mike Hatch sued the tobacco industry for damaging public health, or when Swanson sued 3M for polluting groundwater.
The office also regulates charities and advises and represents the state in court.
Only occasionally does the office actually get involved in criminal prosecutions, and that’s usually in a support role to assist rural prosecutors with small staffs. A relatively small staff of state prosecutors can be essentially loaned out to rural counties prosecuting, say, a double murder.
All of this - the office’s duties, Ellison’s distinctive background - make Ellison, in his words, a “great fit” for the job.
His career in criminal defense, he often says, might not always win popularity points, but it’s rooted in individual rights hallowed by the Constitution. In a recent interview with the Pioneer Press, as Ellison spoke of his legal philosophy, he echoed phrases often used by conservatives: “individual rights,” “due process,” “rule of law,” and “liberty.”
“We could have a criminal justice system that doesn’t have constitutional protections in it, but our constitution does,” he said. “And it’s a good system because it prizes liberty. Somebody who believes in public safety but also believes in our rights, I think that perspective is a good one going into the attorney general’s office.”
Even though the attorney general’s office has little to do with criminal sentencing or state prisons, Ellison said he hopes to participate in criminal justice reforms at the state level, as he has in Congress. Ellison was a co-sponsor of the First Step Act, a bipartisan federal criminal justice reform initiative for which Ellison returned to Washington to vote for Thursday.
“We have tried to incarcerate ourselves into safety, and it doesn’t work,” he said, emphasizing that such a statement is no longer made only by those on the left. “I’m not saying some people shouldn’t be incarcerated. They do.”
Among the concerns some police officers have is that Ellison will similarly use his bully pulpit to tilt the scales against cops when it comes to questions of whether police are justified in shooting a suspect, especially a black suspect.
Ellison said he’s misunderstood on this. He said he’s not sure what formal role, if any, he or his office would play in police shootings. Traditionally, the attorney general’s office has had no formal role.
But, he said, he brings perspective.
“I’m going to be a partner with the law enforcement community and the (African-American community) to make sure any officer-involved shooting is adjudicated quickly, fairly and transparently,” he said.
And yes, he said, it’s an “asset” that he’s black.
“Imagine a white officer who’s basically joined the force to try to help people, and some tragedy happens. They might not understand why people are so upset. What I can offer is to explain that: Look, here’s why people are upset. Here’s the history. We have 300-some years of history that is booming right now. It’s important for people to understand that perspective, because it can help explain why some people might make certain judgments or conclusions early on.”