Attorney General Keith Ellison on Staring Inaction in the Face
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who served as the lead prosecutor in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, described a “cycle of inaction” plaguing police reform efforts across the country, despite demands for change following Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
Speaking as part of Suffolk University Law School’s Donahue Lecture Series, Ellison said that even though reform initiatives were underway before Floyd was killed, with a few notable exceptions, most have failed to move forward.
“We are staring inaction in the face at this very moment,” Ellison said.
Ellison noted that he watched Floyd’s family take a call from President Biden after the Chauvin case verdict was read. During the call, Biden said he wanted a police reform bill passed by May 25, 2021, the first anniversary of Floyd’s death. But Ellison pointed out the bill stalled in the Senate.
The costs of that inaction are high, Ellison said. He noted that one research group found cities have spent $3 billion on police settlements over the past 10 years. He added that the costs of damages caused by the civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder were massive.
According to Ellison, the consequences of civil unrest also include a lack of trust between citizens and law enforcement, and harm to national security by emboldening malicious actors. “[When] we heal unrest in our country, we actually protect our country,” he said.
Reasons for hope
Ellison cited Newark, N.J., as an example of a community that has broken the cycle of inaction. In 2014, the Obama Administration initiated a consent decree there — an agreement between the city and the Department of Justice requiring specific reform actions by the police department. In 2020, in the wake of these reforms, no shots were fired by police in Newark, Ellison said.
The national conversation about how citizens experience “armed agents of the state” is “a conversation about our country, about democracy,” Ellison said.
He pointed to the history of residential segregation in the U.S., reinforced by state action like the Federal Housing Authority requiring that deeds include agreements not to re-sell to Black people. Even today, he said, police are doing their work against the backdrop of patterns of residential segregation.
Ellison called upon students in the audience to use their law degrees to address inequalities in society, even if they don’t pursue full-time public interest law. He urged students to offer legal advice to small businesses, help people get old criminal records expunged so they can move on with their lives and get jobs, or help an immigrant fleeing violence get a new start somewhere safe.
“Please do not only use your law degree to pursue pecuniary gain,” he said.
During a question and answer session, Ellison said that for police officers, qualified immunity, as it stands, is both unreasonable and undemocratic. The legal doctrine allows police and other government officials to be shielded from legal liability in civil cases so long as the officials did not violate clearly established law. He ultimately called for reform of the doctrine rather than its elimination. He called qualified immunity’s reliance on precedent — a previous court decision where a police officer acted in the same manner as the officer now under scrutiny — an absurd hurdle.
The Q&A also included a discussion about police unions. Ellison said that he is pro-union, but that police unions have “just got too much power” over issues that aren’t typically within a union’s oversight.
He recalled an incident shortly after he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007. Ellison described how a Minneapolis police officer who eventually became head of the police union made a comment during a police training comparing Ellison, who is Muslim, with a terrorist. Ellison said he wasn’t scared, but the message for the police trainees was that brutality toward Muslims was a kind of public service. “What if I’m a 17-year-old Somali kid?” he asked.
Founded by the Suffolk University Law Review in 1980 to commemorate the Honorable Frank J. Donahue, former faculty member, trustee, and treasurer of Suffolk University, the Donahue Lecture Series annually attracts some of the nation’s top legal scholars and jurists. Past speakers include Supreme Court justices like the late Antonin Scalia, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, and the late chief justice, William Rehnquist, as well as consumer protection activist Ralph Nader and Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Linda Greenhouse.