A guide to solving police brutality from the Minnesota AG who put Derek Chauvin behind bars
- Minnesota AG Keith Ellison offered ideas on how the US can solve its police brutality problem.
- For one, creating a "norm of responsibility" can hold cops accountable for their bad actions.
On April 20, 2021, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison won his case against former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on George Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes, killing him.
Ellison, the lead prosecutor on the case, only got involved after being called on by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz. In Minnesota, the governor can appoint the attorney general to lead the prosecution on any state case, even though it normally falls to the county prosecutor, Ellison told Insider.
In a phone interview with Insider Thursday, Ellison reflected on his experience leading the case against Floyd's killer and offered ideas on what he thinks could help squash police brutality in the United States.
Ellison's new book, "BREAK THE WHEEL: Ending the Cycle of Police Violence," in which he details the Chauvin prosecution and aftermath for Floyd's murder, will be released Tuesday.
Ellison said departments should get ahead of police brutality
Floyd died on May 25, 2020. Three months earlier, in February 2020, he and Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harington released a report under their joint Task Force to Reduce Deadly Force Encounters for Police, the first state-wide investigation into the issue Ellison said he was aware of, the Attorney General told Insider.
"It wasn't in response to any particular tragic incident," Ellison said. "We said, 'Let's just not wait for a tragic incident. Let's just do something about it now.'"
But Ellison said he only had the "power to advise" and that while the report was "accepted" by law enforcement, no one was required to implement change.
"We knew that there were problems, and we were trying to get ahead of them, but still, sadly, you know, there you go," Ellison said.
Instead, it wasn't until after Floyd's killing — after which angry activists took the the streets across the world — that reform began to come.
He said police departments should implement discipline and make personnel changes if issues arise
Ellison said Chauvin had 18 complaints made against him in the years before he knelt on Floyd's neck. Records previously reviewed by Insider show that two complaints resulted in a "letter of reprimand," but he faced no repercussions for the other 16.
And there were other Minneapolis officers who had even more complaints lodged against them.
"If Derek Chauvin would've had meaningful interventions, maybe he wouldn't have got to 18. Maybe he would've cleaned up his act by the time he got to George Floyd," Ellison told Insider. "Maybe he would have been fired."
Ellison suggested hiring people who will discipline officers when they make mistakes. In Minneapolis, he said, they recently hired a "civil-rights-minded" police chief.
Brian O'Hara took over as Minneapolis Police Chief in November 2022 after serving as public safety director in Newark, New Jersey.
While in that role, O'Hara oversaw Newark's federal consent decree, including implementing new policies around police use of force.
Ellison said O'Hara — now in Minneapolis — is "trying to make sure that accountability is the norm."
There should be a "norm of responsibility" federally, Ellison said
Ellison said the Fourth Amendment —which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures — requires "state actors act reasonably."
"That means police cannot employ arbitrary violence against people," Ellison said.
Still, it is "extremely hard for the federal government to criminally prosecute police officers," Ellison said.
"I think that we have too many officers who think criminal liability is just too remote and too unlikely for them to ever have to worry about," he added.
Ellison said, though, that the more frequently police are held responsible for misbehavior, the more frequently other officers will think about it happening to them.
"If we do this enough, and we create a norm of accountability, suddenly we start approaching justice," Ellison said.
Federal prosecutions, Ellison believes, would also prevent police officers who have misbehaved at one department from being rehired at another department "when they shouldn't be able to work at all."
Ellison said officers should also be held accountable for reporting each other
"I think we need to create a situation where you do something like what Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd, and somebody's getting charged," Ellison said, "you're going to get in trouble if you don't report."
Ellison continued: "If we see that there was a horrific act by a police officer, and we find out that you saw it all and didn't do anything, you're gonna have to do some explaining yourself."
He suggested creating administrative penalties for those who break the rules.
He added that it doesn't only go for criminal conduct — he said there's a lot of "bad conduct" happening in America's approximately 18,000 police departments.
Departments should give officers the help they need, Ellison said
If an officer is repeatedly making mistakes at work, Ellison said the officer's department should ask why it's happening.
"We need to create an environment where we are taking officer wellness seriously," he said. "Because maybe an officer would say, 'Let me just tell you, man, I'm getting divorced.' Or, 'I got an injury, I got addicted to opioids, and I got a bad temper. I didn't used to be this way. I need help.'"
He said departments need to create a situation where "officers can get the help that they need so they can be their best when they hit the street."
Ellison said that state funds should be directed away from police misconduct
Ellison said that police departments are spending millions in misconduct payouts yearly.
In 2021, the city of Minneapolis agreed to play Floyd's family $27 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit. In some cities, the bill is much higher for police brutality — the Legal Aid Society said in February that in 2022, New York City paid over $121 million in settlements and payouts connected to police misconduct cases.
Police misconduct, Ellison said, can lead to riots, which can lead to crime. He said to fix the crime problem, cities need to "build a greater connection between the communities who rely on police services and the police themselves."
Ellison said if less money goes toward settling cases, the funds can instead be funneled into infrastructure improvements, police training, administrative remedies, and the criminal justice system.
Ellison said he's already seeing change at a national level
In January, Tyre Nichols died after Memphis, Tennessee, police officers beat him during a traffic stop.
Ellison said he thinks Memphis' swift response to the incident —issuing quick charges, releasing video of the stop, and dismantling the plain clothes unit involved in the killing — was "informed by what happened to Floyd."
"I think there were clearly some lessons learned and I think that is very important," Ellison said. "I give those departments a lot of credit."
"Some of the national big changes, we haven't seen them yet, but I believe that they'll be on their way," Ellison added.
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