The AG who prosecuted George Floyd's killers has ideas for how to end police violence
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Three years ago this week, George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by police in Minneapolis. It was caught on video. That video ran for more than nine minutes. Floyd's neck is under a white police officer's knee as he pleads for his life. Protests erupted in Minneapolis and then around the world. And when the local community lost faith in the county prosecutor, the job of building the case against the police who killed Floyd fell to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.
KEITH ELLISON: For me, it was a gut-check moment, one of those moments where you ask yourself, what am I about, and what am I in this for? And my answer had to be, we're going to do anything we can to try to make sure that the outcome is fair, just and right.
FADEL: He got convictions for former police officer Derek Chauvin for killing Floyd and then three other police officers for aiding and abetting. Three years later, Ellison is out with a book, "Break The Wheel: Ending The Cycle Of Police Violence." In it, he writes that the outrage over Floyd's killing offered a possibility of finally ending the cycle of state-sponsored violence against African Americans.
ELLISON: We have not gotten to the point where we've arrested this problem, but I still believe that the George Floyd prosecution still offers a possibility if we muster the political will to bring it to a stop.
FADEL: In what way? I mean, I remember being in Minneapolis when the verdicts came in, and there was this absolute shock and then elation that accountability actually happened. And you said at the time that it wasn't justice that day, that it was accountability, which is a step towards justice. But since that time, there's been Tyre Nichols chased by officers after a...
FADEL: ...Traffic stop in Memphis, Jayland Walker in Akron, Ohio, shot dozens of times, Patrick Lyoya, Amir Locke in Minneapolis - just a few examples. I mean, what does have to happen?
ELLISON: We need to pass the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act for the signal that the highest body of legislators in our country have said that this is a very serious problem that needs to be fixed. We need to prosecute criminal conduct whether the person has a badge or not. People need to be fired when they break the rules consistently. I don't think we're going to go from a bad situation to a perfectly good one overnight. There are times when this is action that officers must take to preserve their own lives and others. But there are still far too many cases where - like the Tyre Nichols case and others - that just seemed unnecessary and brutal, and they tear the fabric of our society.
FADEL: What specifically in that act will change the way policing happens?
ELLISON: We need to have a national registry so that if you have an officer who has violated somebody's human rights, violated department rules - cannot just go to another department and just start up there. One prominent example is with the Tamir Rice case, where one officer was found to be unfit to serve in one Ohio police Department and then goes to Cleveland and gets hired.
FADEL: I mean, I'm thinking of Myles Cosgrove, too, who...
FADEL: ...Pulled the trigger in the killing of Breonna Taylor - was fired and now just moved to the sheriff's department in a neighboring county.
ELLISON: Yeah. I think that the recruiting challenge that policing as an industry is facing might have something to do with the fact that people like Derek Chauvin and Myles Cosgrove diminish the reputation of the profession.
FADEL: Now, you spend some time in the book examining the race of two of the officers that were convicted of aiding and abetting in George Floyd's killing. One is Alexander Kueng, a biracial man...
FADEL: ...Who identifies as Black. And he, according to your book, got into law enforcement to change things, to make it better.
ELLISON: There is this idea, this notion that I think is incorrect, that you have white officers killing Black people, and that is the model. In fact, we know that isn't the way it is. If you are a female officer or officer of color and you join that department, and if that department has a toxic culture, you are going to be pressed into it. And so it's not the case that even a young Black man who joins the police department, who might go in with the best of intentions is just going to change that institution. If his FTO is demonstrating the worst conduct, as J. Alexander Kueng's FTO was Derek Chauvin, and merely diversifying departments without real changes at the top, including cultural changes, you're just going to replicate the same results. And those changes have to do with accountability, with ridding the system of impunity and just getting more officers of color or female officers is not a panacea.
FADEL: Now, one of the last chapters in your book is about what happened after prosecuting the case. You almost lost your reelection bid for attorney general.
ELLISON: Yeah. Well, there's no doubt - I mean, folks who are connected to law enforcement unions spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to defeat me. They did it because they wanted to send a message that if you prosecute a member of law enforcement, you might be risking your job. And if I would have lost my election, that would have been too bad. But I would have had no regrets. I don't want any prosecutor in the United States to ever have to say, I'm going to pursue justice or I'm going to look out for my own political interest, which would mean that I might back off. And that's why I felt really, really compelled to do everything I could to win, 'cause I wanted prosecutors to know you can do the right thing. You're just going to have to survive some of these tough elections after some of these tough cases that you have to take. We want to break the wheel, but the reality is we're going to have to chip away at it.
FADEL: Your book feels like a historical record from inside the prosecutor's office, from your viewpoint as attorney general from the moment you cried watching the video of George Floyd being murdered to the moment his killers were held accountable. Why is it important to have this record?
ELLISON: Because sadly, these kind of things are likely to happen again before we bring this phenomenon to an end. I felt very, very firmly, very strongly that I want other folks who care about policy issues - just ordinary citizens, prosecutors, city council members, all - mayors, you know, Congress - to know what happened from the inside so that they can draw whatever lessons are there so that we can bring this problem to a close, because, one, we can stop it. We can stop police brutality. We can have a better relationship between police and community. And I think creating a historical record is key. And I hope somebody reads this book and says, you know, this could happen to my town; here are some things they did here that worked; here are some things they did that maybe didn't work, and we can use them to prevent and to stop this problem, to break the wheel.
FADEL: Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. His new book is "Break The Wheel: Ending The Cycle Of Police Violence." Thank you so much.
ELLISON: Thank you, Leila.
(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO'S "I HEARD YOU LOOKING")
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