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Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison Sees A Cycle Of Inaction On Police Reform

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, pictured in September 2020, says Congress should pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
Jim Mone
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, pictured in September 2020, says Congress should pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

Updated June 28, 2021 at 3:08 PM ET

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced last week to 22 1/2 years for the murder of George Floyd.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who prosecuted the case, says there was no "magic number" he was hoping for in the sentence. It was less than the 30 years he had asked for but more than what is outlined in state guidelines, which call for around 12 1/2 years for second-degree unintentional murder.

"What really was in my mind is the enormity of the moment and the fact that finally somebody was being held accountable for what happened to George Floyd," Ellison tells Noel King on NPR's Morning Edition.

Ellison has said that Chauvin's sentence is one of the longest prison sentences ever issued to a former police officer for the unlawful use of deadly force. It's rare for police to be charged for killing people on the job and even more rare for them to be convicted.

He wants Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would ban chokeholds and end qualified immunity for law enforcement, among other measures. The bill passed the House of Representatives in March. It's been the subject of ongoing negotiations in the Senate, with lawmakers announcing a "framework" for moving forward last week.

Here are excerpts of the interview:

You wrote that we are stuck in a "cycle of inaction" on police reform. What do you mean by that?

Well, Kenneth Clark, the noted sociologist who did the doll study in the Brown v. Board of Education case and then later testified in front of the Kerner Commission, talked about it movingly when he said, look, you know, there is a cycle. You have some act of violence by a state actor, like a police officer, you have protests. Sometimes you have unrest, then you have commissions. Then they study it and make recommendations. And then we don't do anything. And that has happened repeatedly. He noted a cycle that started as early as 1919 and 1917 in Chicago, when there was an incident that followed that pattern. He noted the ones in '43, 1935. And he saw that pattern repeat itself.

What we need now is for bodies like Congress to take action. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — would be great to pass that. But then there's state legislatures that are looking at pieces of legislation. Some have done a little. They all need, I think, to do more. But that also includes municipalities and counties and departments and cities.

We need to act to make sure that every American feels, though, that they're going to be treated with respect and dignity by the people who are devoted to protecting and serving them.

And by the way, police officers, many of them agree wholeheartedly with this. Our own chief took the stand to condemn and say that what Derek Chauvin did was not acceptable policing and was not reflective of the values of the Minneapolis Police Department. But also 14 rank-and-file officers wrote an open letter saying that "we condemn this. This is not what we believe policing should be." The longest-serving police officer in the Minneapolis Police Department did the same thing.

What would need to be in a bill or in a law for it to break the cycle of inaction that you've spoken about?

First of all, I want to see a national registry so bad cops don't just go from department to department. I'd like to see limitations on qualified immunity so that there's some accountability and officers have skin in the game, and they know that the bad policing is not just going to be protected. I'd like to see, you know, a better standard for use of force so that it's not so enormously hard to prove these cases. So there's a number of things.

Nina Kravinsky and Mohamad ElBardicy produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.