Top prosecutor in George Floyd trial discusses new book, police reform in West Palm Beach
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison first emerged as a national figure in 2006 when he became the first Muslim and the first Black Minnesotan elected to Congress.
He was thrust again into the national spotlight in 2020 when a Black man, George Floyd, was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for 9 ½ minutes while bystanders shouted at him to stop. Three other Minneapolis police officers made no effort to stop Chauvin.
A video by a bystander that captured Floyd’s fading cries of “I can’t breathe” shocked the nation and world and triggered months of protests across the country and around the world.
At the time, Ellison was Minnesota’s attorney general and was appointed by the state’s governor to prosecute murder charges against Chauvin and three other Minneapolis police officers.
On Wednesday, nearly three years to the day after Floyd’s murder, Ellison visited West Palm Beach to talk about his new book "Break the Wheel: Ending the Cycle of Police Violence.”
The book, said Ellison, tells the story of his legal team’s successful but difficult journey in convicting the four police officers for Floyd’s murder, even with the video evidence made public.
In his hour−long remarks before the Forum of Club of the Palm Beaches, he also spoke about the troubling history of policing in America and ways to implement reforms in the criminal justice system.
"Prosecutors recognize a certain reality which is prosecuting the police. These are people we work with. 'This is the guy I met going to the picnic with. I'm playing golf with this guy.' And so it creates tension," Ellison said. "But when you are a prosecutor, you are to seek justice without fear or favor. And if you feel you can't do it, hand the case to the attorney general."
"But do not let justice flow by because if you do, you are creating a system of impunity. And you will pay for it down the line," he added.
In his book, he makes the argument that police reform across the country could create less stressful working conditions for police officers.
Before his speech in West Palm Beach, Ellison spoke to WLRN Palm Beach reporter Wilkine Brutus. The interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
WLRN: Black Americans are still killed by police at a higher rate than any other group. And now, three years after George Floyd's murder and worldwide protests, what are the main problems your new book addresses with policing in the U.S.?
ELLISON: Look, police violence not only causes loss of life like in the case of George Floyd or Eric Garner or Philando Castile or Sandra Bland or many others. It also destroys trust between law enforcement and community. We need that law enforcement trust because we've got to have safer communities. And it's only the partnership between citizens and law enforcement that creates that safe community. So police brutality undermines that trust.
And so we've got to fix it. Not to mention, it also cost the city of Minneapolis over $100 million in civil rights lawsuits, police misconduct lawsuits over the last ten years. And then on top of that, every few years, if it keeps up and it's chronic, there's civil unrest. And that is costly. So we've got to fix the problem.
WLRN: I covered the George Floyd marches right here in West Palm Beach, and it was an example of how local politics can quickly turn national. A lot of our local officials use that to change policies, create policy recommendations, for example. How did the George Floyd protests change the way in which people engage with their local government and local officials?
ELLISON: Well, most of the change that happened was local, which is a good thing. In Minneapolis, we got rid of the old model and set up a Department of Public Safety where we have police, fire, mental health, youth violence intervention, gang intervention— all housed under one operation to create greater synergy.
And we ban no knock warrants, ban certain kind of chokeholds. And this happened all over the country. But Congress hasn't failed to act. Congress has not acted. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act must get passed, period. And local leaders are doing what they're supposed to do. Sadly, Congress is not moving forward and we need to urge them to do what they supposed to do.
WLRN: Race and power dynamics adds an extra layer of complexity when it comes to policing. Earlier, this year, protests erupted after five Black police officers in the Memphis Police Department brutally killed a black man named Tyree Nichols.
ELLISON: The Scorpion Unit.
BRUTUS: "The Scorpion unit." How do you think that shaped the discourse surrounding policing?
ELLISON: Well, actually, I think it helped focus the discourse where it should be, because often when race— often it's about the race of the victim. We live in a society where, let's just face it, based on 246 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow, and 60 years of disparities in every aspect of American life, it's kind of okay to hurt black people, right, for black people too. The penalties are different. And so I'm not surprised that this kind of thing would happen in the at the hands of Black officers.
But I will say, in defense of Black officers, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives
and other Black police groups have been at the forefront of demanding change. So, yeah, individual officers of any color can be abusive towards citizens. It's abuse of power. And, at the same time, Black officers have been the force for change.