In political ads for Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, the national progressive organization Color of Change highlights Ellison’s history of “holding police accountable” and “leading criminal justice reform.” At the same time, a television spot by Republican candidate Jim Schultz says Ellison “partnered with Ilhan Omar to defund the police.”
Those dueling ads reflect an unlikely reality: While attorneys general usually focus on key duties like representing state agencies in court and handling consumer protection cases, police reform has in many ways defined Ellison’s first term in office and become a major flashpoint in what polls show is a hotly contested reelection campaign.
George Floyd’s murder in 2020 put Ellison in the national spotlight as he led the prosecution of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. He secured a conviction for Chauvin and later for former Brooklyn Center officer Kim Potter in a state that had never imprisoned a white officer for killing a Black man. Ellison also waded into fierce debate over how to change the Minneapolis Police Department, becoming the only statewide elected official and one of the most prominent DFLers to endorse a failed charter amendment that would have replaced MPD with a department of public safety.
Schultz, a private practice and business attorney running on an anti-crime message, has relentlessly criticized Ellison’s handling of the Potter case and for “extraordinarily reckless” support for a ballot measure he said “demoralized police.” Republicans hope that resonates with voters who cite crime as a top concern, and 40 county sheriffs and the 10,000-member Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA) have endorsed Schultz.
“Not only should you lose this election because of it,” Schultz said of Ellison’s charter amendment endorsement during a televised debate Sunday. “You should spend the rest of your career apologizing to the people of Minnesota.”
But Ellison and his supporters argue the incumbent has been a trail-blazing leader who has sought justice and was rightfully focused on police accountability — even before Floyd’s murder and the widespread protests and riots that rocked the Twin Cities.
“I have a track record of bringing people together to drive conversation about how we obtain meaningful reform,” Ellison said at the debate.
Ellison’s deadly force task force
Ellison did not wait to jump into the issue of police reform after being elected.
In July of 2019, months after he took office, the AG launched a task force with Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington meant to find solutions for reducing the number of people killed by police.
The panel had 18 members with wide-ranging political views. It included Philando Castile’s uncle, Clarence Castile; Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, a Republican from Alexandria and former sheriff; Elizer Darris from the ACLU and several police leaders such as Brian Peters, who is executive director of the MPPOA.
The task force held four public hearings and three listening sessions throughout the state. And the group met in private to negotiate 28 recommendations and 33 “action steps” that were released in February of 2020.
After Floyd’s murder a few months later, Ellison urged lawmakers to give the report serious consideration.
The task force report “heavily informed our position” on police reform, said Jeff Hayden, a lobbyist who was a DFL state senator at the time representing the south Minneapolis district where Floyd was murdered. Hayden said the report was helpful in part because it didn’t solely focus on Minneapolis, but instead bolstered a case for statewide changes at the Legislature. Harrington’s background as St. Paul’s former police chief also gave the task force credibility with cops, he said.
“There were things in it that started to talk about police accountability and how people felt about law enforcement broadly,” Hayden said. “It starts to say that people all over the state had some concerns about how they were being treated by law enforcement, and through that there were things we thought could be helpful to law enforcement, frankly, and the community together.”
Even the MPPOA urged lawmakers to heed the report’s recommendations, perhaps because the task force did not reach consensus on more controversial issues, such as spelling out when police can use deadly force. Peters told MinnPost at the time that nine months of negotiating yielded “a playbook” for the Legislature.
“That was a perfect example of us coming together and making recommendations,” Peters said in an interview on Tuesday. “House Democrats took those reforms that were recommended and put them on steroids.”
That included a measure to direct the AG to handle all cases when police kill someone. But Republicans blocked it after some county attorneys worried it would be an unwelcome intrusion into local control and make prosecution subject to partisan politics.
The police accountability measures that did pass in July 2020 by the Republican-led Senate and DFL-majority House followed several recommendations from the task force, such as establishing an independent unit within the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to investigate when police kill people and requiring some training for officers to deal with mental health crises.
The bill also included measures that followed task force recommendations that police “make sanctity of life a core organizational value” and require officers to intervene when they see unreasonable use of force.
The Chauvin and Potter prosecutions
Ellison took on the prosecution of Chauvin and three additional officers at the request of Walz and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman — and at the urging of some activists, Minneapolis council members and members of Floyd’s family. That handoff came after days of widespread protests over Floyd’s murder, as well as damaging riots that led to activating the National Guard.
Hayden said Ellison, a Black man who had represented Minneapolis in both Congress and the state Legislature, was a trusted voice on the issue, especially for “the Black community and marginalized communities that were at the brunt of and had been dealing with this issue of police misconduct or brutality forever.”
Justin Terrell was leading the state’s Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage at the time, and said they recommended Ellison prosecute after much deliberation “when the city was on fire and people were expressing no confidence in the county attorney’s office.”
While Freeman could have handed the case to another county, “we understood right away it needed to be somebody that the community trusts,” said Terell, who is now executive director of the Minnesota Justice Research Center and a member of the Peace Officer Standards and Training board. Terrell noted because of that work, he doesn’t make political endorsements.
Ellison quickly added a higher murder charge for Chauvin. And the AG built a prosecution team that included Jerry Blackwell, who in June was nominated for a U.S. District Court Judge position. While Ellison tamped down expectations, telling national media that it’s “hard to convict the police,” a jury did convict Chauvin.
“When the eyes of the world were focused on Minnesota, Minnesota turned to me to prosecute the case involving George Floyd’s murder,” Ellison said. “I came through and showed the world that we had a justice system that could deliver justice.”
Most elected officials in Minnesota praised the Chauvin conviction. And in the debate on Sunday, Schultz said Chauvin did commit murder.
But the case nevertheless became a point of contention when Schultz downplayed Ellison’s role. “The fact is he brought in other attorneys to do it, and no, Keith, you cannot take credit for that,” Schultz said at the debate Sunday. “The fact is there’s people on your staff who did it.”
Ellison shot back by saying: “How would you possibly know? You’ve never prosecuted a single case, you’ve never tried a case, you’ve never argued a motion in court.”
The AG said he “chaired every single meeting that we had,” came up with the overall legal strategy, helped structure the case and identified “who would do what.”
Several members of the prosecution team have since come to Ellison’s defense amid the heated partisan election. Lola Velazquez-Aguilu, an attorney on the prosecution team, said on Twitter that Ellison “was an exemplary leader, the most skilled legal manager I ever had the privilege to work for.”
Some also praised Ellison publicly at the time. Neal Katyal, a member of the prosecution team, told the New York Times in April of 2021 that Ellison’s involvement was a “gentle steering of the ship” that also included more detailed work like editing legal briefs. Katyal told the paper Ellison was involved in nearly every aspect of the case, including preparing witnesses and giving input on jury selection.
The prosecution of Potter, who shot and killed Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in April of 2021, has been far more controversial. Freeman initially gave the case to then-Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, and his office charged Potter with second-degree manslaughter.
But amid activist pressure for a murder charge, protests at Orput’s house, and outrage over another killing of a Black man by police, the county turned over prosecution to Ellison. Days later, Washington County’s lead prosecutor on the case resigned, citing political influence on the job. Imran Ali now works for the MPPOA.
Ellison later upgraded the charge on Potter to first-degree manslaughter.
Schultz said in an interview that there was a “strong argument” for a second-degree manslaughter charge. But he said Ellison ignored two respected county prosecutors and responded to “mob justice” and pressures of the political environment.
Ellison, Schultz argued, was “much more focused on appeasing a far-left base than justice for Minnesotans. “The up-charge there was deeply disturbing.”
Both Schultz and Republican candidate for governor Scott Jensen have said they would vote to commute Potter’s sentence on Minnesota’s three-person pardons board. Potter yelled “Taser” three times before shooting Wright and said she did not mean to use her gun.
Ellison maintains Potter’s “reckless” discharge of a gun met the elements of first-degree manslaughter and points out Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu rejected a motion by Potter’s legal team to dismiss the first-degree charge. A jury, of course, also convicted Potter.
Even so, the incumbent AG has lately argued he was not overly aggressive or punitive in the Potter case. At first, Ellison sought a sentence that was tougher than recommended by state guidelines, and then he changed course, arguing for a sentence within those guidelines — roughly between six and eight-and-a-half years. He later told Fox 9 it would be futile to try to contest the two-year sentence Chu handed down in February.
At the time, Ellison’s actions in sentencing Potter drew praise from the MPPOA, even as the organization criticized other aspects of the case. “We also acknowledge the actions of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison in advocating for a just sentence for Ms. Potter and commend the professionalism in advancing a sentence commensurate with Ms. Potter’s actions,” Peters said in a 2021 statement.
Schultz maintains that the charge wasn’t justified by the later conviction. “Whether it be in the 1950s South or in 2022 today, we see juries get it wrong sometimes,” Schultz said. “We should have prosecutors who are responsible when they do their job and bring charges that reflect the actual crimes.”
Charter amendment and ‘defund’ politics
Ellison and Schultz have sparred over other issues related to criminal justice, like cash bail policy, the depth of Ellison’s involvement in the Legislature and his role in investigating the $250 million Feeding our Future fraud scandal.
But on policing, Schultz has lodged his fiercest criticism of Ellison for endorsing the Minneapolis policing charter amendment last year that voters rejected. The proposal came after a majority of the council in 2020 called for dismantling the police department while they spoke on a stage at Powderhorn Park framed by a large “defund police” sign.
The charter amendment itself would have replaced MPD with a public safety department, and it would have eliminated a minimum staffing requirement for officers and given the council more control over police. The ballot measure said the public safety department would include officers “if necessary.”
The charter amendment divided high-ranking DFLers: Gov. Tim Walz, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, plus U.S. Rep. Angie Craig opposed the measure; Ellison and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar backed it. Ellison’s support was notable enough that a pro-amendment campaign ran ads touting his endorsement.
In an op-ed in the StarTribune in September of 2021, Ellison said he hadn’t heard from anyone supporting the amendment who wanted to eliminate police entirely. And he said armed officers would still be necessary to respond to dangerous situations. But he said a “police-only model” doesn’t work for everyone. And he said the measure would help create “systems change,” allowing cops to focus on more dangerous work while a department staffed with mental health professionals and others could respond to nonviolent calls.
Throughout the campaign, Schultz has portrayed Ellison as out of step with voters in DFL-friendly Minneapolis — and even with other Democrats like Klobuchar. He notes the ballot measure was voted down in two city council wards in north Minneapolis.
The south Minneapolis ward where Floyd was killed did vote in favor of the amendment, and Hayden supports Ellison and doesn’t believe the AG wants to defund police. But Hayden also opposed the charter amendment, saying “it seemed that it was very closely tied to the people who wanted to abolish police, and the folks that I represented and the community that I come from didn’t want to abolish police, they just wanted police to do their job and be respectful.”
Ellison, meanwhile, says most of what he wanted from the charter amendment has been accomplished without the ballot measure passing. The city has a public safety department, now led by Cedric Alexander. And Ellison said the city is working on the issues of homelessness, addiction and gang violence prevention “in a more comprehensive way.”
Ellison called defunding the police “never a good idea” and “even worse phrasing.” At the same time, he has campaigned recently with Omar and U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, two politicians who did advocate for defunding police. Asked about Bush on Sunday, Ellison said the Missourian has done “great things” on homelessness, housing, tobacco, student loan debt and “tons of things” unrelated to policing.
“Look, my position is that this is a red herring,” Ellison said. “The police were not defunded, the charter amendment did not succeed. The police have more money now than ever. And so I’m supposed to flee from anybody who is associated with that because I’m scared that Jim Schultz is going to accuse me? That’s not who I am.”