U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) told a Chicago audience that she hopes the unrest following the killing of an unarmed black man in her state will create a legacy of “sweeping reform” of law enforcement.
“If we answer with silence, we will be complicit,” she said. If we answer it with defiance as the president has done, we will be monsters.” Klobuchar spoke Thursday in a virtual conversation with David Axelrod, the former senior adviser to former President Barack Obama and current director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. She took questions live from students but was mostly pushed by Axelrod to talk about her personal experience in Minnesota as the former prosecutor of Hennepin County where George Floyd was killed June 1 by a police officer.
Axelrod noted that Klobuchar, who earlier this year ended her campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, had been the county attorney for eight years before she entered national politics. He asked why police were never charged in dozens of cases involving allegations of police brutality in her county. At the time, Axelrod noted, the trend was not unusual for most county prosecutors’ offices across the U.S. Only recently, with the nationwide emergence of so-called “progressive” county prosecutors, like Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx , are police abuse cases getting serious consideration. This new generation of prosecutors are finding winning platforms with reforms they say are needed after decades of incarceration-driven practices and unfair prosecutions.
Klobuchar said that the cases she handled in Minnesota involved officer-involved shootings and deaths, while the majority of police abuse cases were handled by the city attorney.
Nevertheless, she said police received light treatment because the standard of proof required was too high. “You need a better way to bring these cases. When you change [charging requirements] from ‘necessary force’ to ‘reasonable’ force, it will make all the difference for justice,” she said.
Axelrod suggested a common problem is that many country prosecutors have an inherent conflict of interest with the police and see both their jobs as interconnected. Klobuchar said she supports bringing in independent outside prosecutors, such as the state’s attorney, involved in these cases. She also said the court system needs to acknowledge its inherent racism when dealing with prosecuting and sentencing juveniles. “The system can be wrong,” she said.
Her advice was to consider how harsh prosecutions for small offenses could damage a young person’s life — prevent them from getting a job and voting, for example. She also suggested strengthening clemency programs and pardons. “All of that allows us to not just make changes going forward with sentences, but it also allows us to look backwards, so we’re not just closing our eyes with what happened in the past,” she said.
Klobuchar and Axelrod agreed that one of the barriers to police reform is the Fraternal Order of Police and other unions that traditionally push back against proposed reforms involving local police departments.
Klobuchar said she expects “systemic change with these police unions” is around the corner. A sign, she noted, was a public statement released this week by Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor union, which blasted “America’s long history of racism and police violence against black people.”
“That is a union. He was willing to be outspoken. You’re going to have members of other unions be strongly about that,” she said.
The inevitable question of the vice presidency came midway through the hour-long conversation when Axelrod asked if she wanted to serve under likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden should he make the invitation.
“I am not focusing on vice president issues. I really believe this is Joe Biden’s choice,” she said. “I know it’s not the answer you want. He’s going to decide who he picks. I have not broached it at all in any discussion. It’s up to him.”
Said Axelrod: “It’s not the answer I wanted, but it’s the right answer.”