“It’s hard to convict the police,” Minnesota Attorney Gen. Keith Ellison said in 2020. He’d just taken over the investigation into the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, not long after arsonists had just burned down the city’s third police precinct. Ellison’s team won the case, and his new book, “Break the Wheel,” recounts how they did it, as well as how he won a tight re-election campaign amid the backlash to 2020’s police reforms. This is an edited transcript of his conversation with Americana.
Americana: You get into your re-election last year in the book, and write that “I simply could not allow the lesson to be that prosecuting a cop is political suicide.” What would have happened, had you lost?
Keith Ellison: I was worried that we would be further away from the basic idea of equal protection, the idea that nobody is above the law, nobody’s beneath the law. Keith Ellison could go and do other things. I’ve never fully identified with the elective office that I happen to be holding at the time. But I felt a tremendous urgency to pull it out in that election, because if I lost, it would scare anybody away from doing what I believe is their duty as a prosecutor.
That would have been a horrible outcome. So I knocked every door I could. Can you prosecute a police officer and still win your job back as a prosecutor? The answer is yes, but you might have to work your ass off.
Americana: You write about thinking through the risks when you learned that Gov. Walz was going to give you the case. “Wouldn’t I be deciding based on how the outcome affects me personally? Isn’t that wrong?”
Keith Ellison: My mom was on my mind that day. Do you remember when that horrible tragic incident happened at the Pulse nightclub in Florida? And then John Lewis and some other members of Congress went down to the House floor and did a good old-fashioned sit in?
Americana: I do.
Keith Ellison: So, I happened to be in my office talking to some constituents at the time. My secretary walks into the room, and she hands me a card with a note on it, which says: “Your mom said get to the House floor.” My mother had called my office. She saw that there was a sit-down on the House floor, and she expected her son to be at the party.
That’s the kind of woman that she was. She was a justice person. She would have been absolutely appalled by what happened to George Floyd. And she would have wanted me to do what was right.
Americana: You write this about the prosecution’s strategy: “We weren’t putting policing on trial. As much as some protesters would have enjoyed that, it probably would have led to an acquittal.” What do you mean?
Keith Ellison: I’m aware of the larger historical political ramifications of chronic excessive force. It’s historic and nationwide. I’ve been working on it for a long time. But it wasn’t going to achieve the main goal here. And I think it would be slightly unfair, given the fact that I know so many cops who really do care about the safety of their neighbors, and signed up to protect that safety.
If this experience taught me anything, it is that we don’t have to have fundamentally flawed policing in America. We have it, because we will not maintain accountability. We have it because we won’t fire people or discipline them when they violate rules. But I’m convinced that the institution remains important and is honorable, and that we don’t have to live this way.
We need to acknowledge that we do need armed agents of the state to deal with certain kinds of crime, violent crime. But we don’t need armed agents of the state to handle every kind of crime. For example, maybe you can just send out some sort of counterfeit investigator to go deal with the George Floyd matter.
Americana: The response to that, especially from Republicans, is usually mockery. Oh, you want to send a social worker to a crime scene?
Keith Ellison: This is all stuff Republicans hate because they believe in punishment, for others, not themselves. If you’re a low-income, poor person, they think the way to get you to do something is to inflict maximum pain on you. If you’re talking about themselves, they want the Donald Trump treatment, nothing bad. Nothing bad you do, you ever have to answer for.
Americana: You got re-elected, but you endorsed the measure to replace the Minneapolis police department, and that failed. What’s actually improved since 2020?
Keith Ellison: That became one of my comebacks in the debates. “Oh, Ellison supported this proposal to get rid of the police department and have a department of public safety.” I said: Well, you’re right. I did. I did support that amendment. But guess what, after it went down, the wiser people took over and we now have a department of public safety, and you have one person who can coordinate all these agencies. We’re actually interested in saving lives, and you’re interested in trying to win an election through fear.
We overhauled the police officer standards and training system. The city of Minneapolis has banned no-knock warrants. St. Paul hasn’t done a no-knock warrant since 2016. And we have police leadership that, in my opinion, really gets it.
Americana: You said earlier that we do need “armed agents of the state” to deal with some crimes. What’s your response to abolitionists, who believe that policing’s inherently racist, and you make communities safe by funding them?
Keith Ellison: So long as human beings are as they are, there will be rapes, there will be robberies, there will be domestic violence, there will be drive-by shootings. Even if you got rid of any kind of economic and social injustice, explain to me, why did Bernie Madoff rip off a bunch of people? I mean, people do evil things to each other who don’t have to. They’re not from poor families. They’re not racial minorities. And they do bad shit.
You might not need to bust into Bernie Madoff’s house with guns pointed at his head. But to the degree that human beings hurt each other, you need somebody who’s going to stop it, and hold them accountable after they do it. That’s why I could never get my brain around abolition. When you talk to the abolitionists, they’ll say that they’re really talking about how a high percentage of the crime that we see is socially caused. Okay. That doesn’t mean we get rid of the police. That means we may not need as many as we have now. And that’s an empirical question.