Klobuchar didn't prosecute controversial police killings or brutality cases as a county prosecutor

From left: U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, her daughter Abigail Bessler and husband John Bessler kick off her campaign for president of the United States, Sunday, Feb. 10 in Boom Island Park, Minneapolis. Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press
From left: U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, her daughter Abigail Bessler and husband John Bessler kick off her campaign for president of the United States, Sunday, Feb. 10 in Boom Island Park, Minneapolis. Scott Takushi / Pioneer PressScott Takushi / Pioneer Press

Violence was a dark feature of law enforcement in Minnesota's largest county 20 years ago. Amy Klobuchar saw it firsthand as the Hennepin County attorney, though she kept a distance.

Over eight years beginning in 1999, the city of Minneapolis paid $4.8 million in legal settlements related to 122 police misconduct incidents. And police officers and county sheriffs were involved in 29 civilian deaths.

Klobuchar, however, chose not to criminally charge any fatalities involving law enforcement. Instead, she routinely put the decision to a grand jury, a process widely criticized for its secrecy and for mostly allowing the police version of events. Klobuchar also didn't take on any of the misconduct claims.

The mother of a black teenager who was shot and killed by police in 2004 begged Klobuchar to file charges against the officer instead of presenting the case to a grand jury.

"The grand jury is a way of hiding that the prosecutor is not giving the full information of guilt to the grand jury," Tahisha Williams Brewer wrote to Klobuchar at the time. "I want this process out in the open, where everyone can observe it and make sure that it is fair to my son."

Klobuchar did not directly respond to Williams Brewer and proceeded to present the case to a grand jury, which found the shooting was justified.

Two years earlier, a riot broke out in the predominantly black Jordan neighborhood in north Minneapolis after police accidentally shot an African-American boy during a drug raid. Anger rose and trust fell quickly between law enforcement and minority communities. A federal mediator quickly arrived to try to calm tensions. Klobuchar didn't get involved.

"I think there was a significant amount of indifference on her part with regards to the problems facing the Native-American and African-American community," said Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist who served on a police relations council created through the federal mediation process.

As Klobuchar — a U.S. senator from Minnesota — begins a run for president, her past decisions to not use the power of her office to punish bad cops or stand up for the communities she otherwise protected will contrast with a more progressive Democratic electorate calling for greater police accountability.

Diverse voters — a critical bloc for Democrats — and African-Americans, in particular, are scrutinizing the candidates' positions on race-based issues, including criminal justice. As one of two prosecutors in the race for president — U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris from California is the other — Klobuchar has an extensive record of prosecutions, sentencings and enforcement priorities.

Her legislative record today regarding criminal justice matters could be interpreted as an extension of her past: It shows little leadership on efforts to make the criminal justice system fairer: Of the six U.S. senators running for president, Klobuchar has introduced the fewest criminal justice reform bills since the protests over a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, an alarming event that sparked a nationwide focus on police accountability.

"It gives me pause in thinking about her potentially becoming the next president of the United States," said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a lawyer and former president of the Minneapolis NAACP.

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As for the past, Levy Armstrong says, "It's important for someone like Amy Klobuchar to acknowledge the mistakes that she made and the harm that she caused and to make amends."

When Klobuchar was a county prosecutor — from 1999 until 2007 — Black Lives Matter didn't exist, there weren't body cameras or cellphone videos, and cops were rarely prosecuted. Klobuchar's reliance on grand juries was in step with her peers nationwide, and she positioned herself politically as tough on crime and a friend of the police.

During Klobuchar's campaign for prosecutor in 1998, Minneapolis police union leaders enthusiastically supported her during her campaign kickoff. The union backed her that year and in 2002. Records of how much money the union spent on Klobuchar's behalf in those races no longer exist.

Michelle Gross, the founder of Communities United Against Police Brutality in Minneapolis, said Klobuchar routinely sided with police on issues involving police misconduct. "We really could not get her to pay attention to the issue of police brutality or even to the issue of racial disparities in the criminal justice system," she said.

One civil rights advocate — Ian Bethel — said Klobuchar connected with minority groups, created relationships and was accessible. And while she certainly wasn't to blame for the problems with Minneapolis police, Klobuchar fell short, said Bethel, a minister at an African-American church who was involved in the federal mediation between Minneapolis police and minority communities. "Were we happy with what she could produce? No, I can't say that 100 percent."

In the past year, Klobuchar, 58, acknowledged that there is racism in the criminal justice system. At a recent CNN town hall, she emphasized that she's been "working on racial justice issues her entire life," including efforts to diversify her office and measures to improve witness identification.

Klobuchar wouldn't be interviewed for this story, responding instead to emailed questions with written statements. She did not answer questions about the death of Williams Brewer's son or the mother's plea for her to not rely on a grand jury. Klobuchar also didn't address how she handled specific cases of police misconduct or her lack of involvement in federal mediation.

In her responses, she highlighted her efforts to crack down on crime but acknowledged some of her actions may have harmed parts of the community. "I don't have a perfect record, but I promise you, every single day in that job I tried to put myself in other people's shoes to try to do the right thing," Klobuchar said.

A mother urges accountability

Police shot and killed 25 people and four people died in custody while Klobuchar was the chief prosecutor of Minnesota's largest county. She sent all but one case to a grand jury and none were charged.

A review of the deaths found that a majority were not controversial. But there were at least two instances in which families and activists questioned Klobuchar's decision to present the cases to a grand jury.

Fifteen years after Courtney Williams was killed by police, his family continues to question why their 15-year-old son had to die.

In 2004, the African-American teenager was shot by a Minneapolis police officer. The officer claimed he shot Williams because the teenager pointed a gun at him during a chase. A pellet gun was found at the scene but Williams' family doesn't believe Williams was holding the gun when he was shot.

"We had questions about the official story that Courtney was pointing a gun," said Ella Davis Suggs, Williams' aunt.

Suggs says the family became suspicious after seeing coroner photos that seemed to conflict with the police department's account. They said the pictures showed Williams was shot in the shoulder and head, leading them to believe he may have been raising his arms to surrender. They also said Williams' fingerprints were found only on the barrel of the pellet gun, not the handle or trigger.

In her letter to Klobuchar, Williams' mother not only urged transparency and fairness, she wanted Klobuchar to take charge. "Prosecute this man, and make that decision yourself, and then be accountable to the people for it," Williams Brewer wrote.

She said she was worried that Klobuchar's office was too close to Minneapolis police and would give jurors only the police department's version of events.

Williams Brewer said Klobuchar never directly responded to the family's request.

Klobuchar presented the Williams' case to the grand jury. Four months after the shooting, it ruled that the officer's use of force was justified, a conclusion the police had reached, too.

Suggs said she believes Klobuchar should have made the charging decision herself. "There might have been a different outcome. She might have been able to encourage people to dig a little deeper," she said.

Members of the Police Community Relations Council — a body formed by the city to help ease tensions — were divided on the grand jury's ruling. After reviewing police accounts and talking with the family and activists, some council members found the shooting justified and others sided with the family.

The city of Minneapolis and Tahisha Williams Brewer reached a settlement of $20,000 in 2013. She said the money paid for her son's burial and tombstone. Her other children received $1,000 each.

Killed by neck hold was 'justifiable' homicide

The Williams case wasn't the only instance in which community groups lobbied Klobuchar to avoid using a grand jury.

Gross — the founder of Communities United Against Police Brutality — said the group protested outside of Klobuchar's office in 2002 on behalf of Christopher Burns, who died after a police officer tried to restrain him.

Police went to Burns' house on a domestic disturbance call and put him in a neck hold. Police said that Burns resisted arrest, was thrashing around and difficult to control. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide.

Klobuchar presented the case to a grand jury, which ruled it a justifiable homicide.

A civil suit filed by Burns' fiancée claimed that the officer used "an unnecessary amount of force." The suit resulted in a $300,000 settlement with the city of Minneapolis.

Critics of the grand jury system say it gives prosecutors political cover to not prosecute police officers. Klobuchar and others have argued that a grand jury removes a potential conflict of interest between prosecutors and police because it allows a group of independent citizens to decide whether to file charges. A grand jury, however, doesn't hear challenges to the evidence that a prosecutor presents, which leaves it strongly under the influence of one set of facts.

Klobuchar advocated for grand juries in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio in 2002. "It's something that we think is important for the community that when the police shoot someone and someone is killed that that case is reviewed by citizens out in the community to determine whether or not criminal charges should be brought," she said.

Her successor as Hennepin County attorney, Mike Freeman, ended the practice of presenting officer-involved shootings to a grand jury in 2016, citing the "accountability and transparency limitations" of the grand jury system. He made the decision after civil rights groups worried a grand jury would opt against charging a Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed Jamar Clark in 2015.

Freeman eventually declined to charge the officers involved in the shooting. He is currently prosecuting the Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed Justine Damond Ruszczyk in 2017.

In her emailed statements Klobuchar said she's "supportive of these recent efforts and is working to make sure our criminal justice system actually delivers justice for all."

Tahisha Williams Brewer said she's glad Klobuchar and prosecutors are now willing to be more transparent. "Those families who did get justice — I'm glad for them and I wished it could have happened for me, but I didn't get any justice," she said.

A riot, mediation, no Klobuchar

Klobuchar was elected Hennepin County attorney at a tense time for Minneapolis law enforcement. City, county and state officials were under pressure to get crime under control, especially after the reaction to the city's sky-high murder rate in 1995 — 27.1 killings per 100,000 people — earning it the nickname "Murderapolis."

Klobuchar got aggressive. She pledged to increase the prosecution of juveniles, criminals with multiple felonies, and gun crimes while praising New York City's "broken windows" approach to prosecute lower-level offenses — a measure that criminal justice experts now say unfairly targeted minority communities.

But as law enforcement increased efforts to prevent crime, there was growing frustration with how forcefully police were treating African-Americans, particularly in north Minneapolis. The approach cost the city millions to settle misconduct claims.

The riot in 2002, which occurred in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Minneapolis, had been the latest flashpoint between police and minority communities.

They were at an impasse over the best way to address allegations of police misconduct, which the department investigated internally.

A month before the riots, a police officer and a citizen were shot and killed during a gunfight. And just two weeks before the riot, white police officers shot a young African-American man who allegedly was carrying a gun. An angry crowd gathered after the shooting to complain that police were targeting African-Americans.

Bethel said groups in north Minneapolis were warning police officials that the community was upset with recent police actions. He said police officials were dismissive. "We told them that this was going to be a tinderbox and the tinderbox happened," Bethel said.

The riot started on a hot August night. While Minneapolis police served a search warrant to a house, they said that officers were forced to shoot an attacking dog and bullet fragments struck a young boy.

News of the incident drove about 100 people to the streets, claiming that police intentionally shot the boy. The riot — which lasted a few hours — resulted in injuries to several people, including three journalists. A bus was damaged and several cars were set on fire.

The shooting and unrest prompted another round of calls for the city to adopt greater police-accountability measures. A federal mediator arrived to help facilitate the discussions. City leaders were heavily involved in the talks.

Klobuchar — who served as one of the county's top law enforcement officials — was not directly involved, and her office didn't play a formal role in the talks, according to the Hennepin County Attorney's Office.

For some critics, her absence now represents another example of her lack of interest in police misconduct. "I never saw her at any engagement in that process whatsoever," said Gross, who was involved in the early discussions with the mediator.

The county attorney's office has no formal role and does not see cases unless they're forwarded by the police department. Nothing, however, prevented Klobuchar from requesting additional details from high-profile cases and costly settlements. It isn't clear if Klobuchar made those efforts and her campaign did not respond to questions about it.

A week after the riots, Klobuchar was asked directly about police brutality in Minneapolis.

"In the end, we also have to enforce the law even if it involves a police officer," she told Minnesota Public Radio. "I'm very impressed by the work that the mayor is trying to do, that the chief is trying to do, that the community groups in the Jordan neighborhood and others are trying to do to keep that trust. Because in the end, if that trust breaks down, it's the people in the neighborhoods that are hurt the most."

A mediated agreement signed in 2003 listed more than 100 action items, including recommendations on officer training, use-of-force policy and how the department investigates use-of-force incidents. It also led to the creation of the Police Community Relations Council.

Bethel, who co-chaired the council for the last few years of the five it was in existence, said he doesn't remember Klobuchar participating in the mediation but does remember representatives from her office at the meetings.

Former Minneapolis City Council Member Barb Johnson also said she doesn't remember Klobuchar taking part in the discussions. But she said it was the responsibility of Minneapolis city leaders, not the county attorney, to address concerns about police misconduct and to repair rifts between the department and communities of color.

Klobuchar did not answer questions on her role in federal mediation. She said the biggest concern she heard from the public was related to crime. "When I first came into office, the major thing I heard from the African American community, bar none, was there were a bunch of their kids were killed by gangsters. We simply went in and did our jobs," she said.

Little political upside taking on cops

Police shootings were not considered a national issue when Klobuchar was a prosecutor. A review of media reports between 1998 and 2006 show only a handful of instances in which a prosecutor charged a police officer for killing someone or engaging in violent misconduct.

Nonetheless, experts in police behavior and political analysts say Klobuchar's record on police misconduct should be scrutinized as she campaigns for president. Philip Stinson, with the Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said prosecutors and the public have historically believed a police officer's explanation of events but that changed after the protests in Ferguson.

Prosecutors today "might be a little bit more skeptical in their willingness to automatically accept the police version of events," Stinson said. "You'd have to look at it through that lens."

Klobuchar's inaction was typical. District and county attorneys charging police officers was — and still is — uncommon, though police brutality was familiar, especially after the videotaped 1991 beating of Rodney King. The officers involved were acquitted of assault and excessive force, and a six-day riot followed in which 63 people were killed.

Between 2001 and 2005, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley did not bring a criminal case against anyone involved in the city's 442 police shootings, according to the Los Angeles Times. Only three of 314 alleged excessive-force cases examined during the same time resulted in criminal charges. And in Chicago, a 2007 investigation found that Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine had not charged any on-duty officers with shooting a civilian, according to the Chicago Tribune.

In Milwaukee — Wisconsin's largest county — the district attorney in 2004 was E. Michael McCann and he had a fraught relationship with the Milwaukee Police Department and its union.

That year, he charged three officers in a high-profile brutality case involving their off-duty actions. A jury acquitted them but they later faced federal charges and struck a plea deal. In 2005, McCann also charged one officer with homicide for shooting a civilian while off-duty. The officer committed suicide shortly after being charged.

In both cases, McCann said he faced harsh criticism and calls to resign by the police union.

His analysis is blunt — there's little political upside for a prosecutor to take a public stance on police misconduct cases: being too aggressive leads to problems with the city's police unions but failing to act can lead to blowback from the community.

"It can have a measurably pejorative impact on your electoral possibilities, and it doesn't often add much to it," McCann said.

Klobuchar hasn't been out front on police accountability

As she campaigns for president, Klobuchar has been touting her record as a prosecutor. At campaign stops and in media interviews, she typically says she does her job "without fear or favor" as a U.S. senator and did so too when she was Hennepin County attorney.

She used her prosecutorial career to build her statewide profile. She spoke in favor of hate crime legislation at the White House in 2000, she prosecuted several cases involving white-collar crime and successfully lobbied to toughen penalties for repeat drunk driving offenders. Those efforts helped springboard her to the U.S. Senate after winning the 2006 election.

When asked about her prosecutorial record on race, Klobuchar quickly highlights her efforts to require police to videotape witness interrogations and change how witnesses identify suspects, and her attempts to diversify her office.

However, the disproportionate number of minorities she sent to state prison isn't a campaign talking point.

Nearly two-thirds of the Hennepin County residents sent to state prison by Klobuchar or her deputies were African-American, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Corrections. That came during a period when African-Americans made up about 10 percent of the county's population, according to U.S. Census data.

Teresa Nelson, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said Klobuchar showed no interest in improving racial justice issues or prosecuting police misconduct. "I don't know that I've ever heard her really talking about race and mass incarceration and the racial disparities that we have here in Minnesota and around the country in our criminal justice system," Nelson said.

She and others say Klobuchar needs to explain her record as prosecutor and whether racial equity in the criminal justice system would be a priority if she became president.

During a U.S. Senate hearing in 2014 that focused on civil rights in the months after the protests in Ferguson, Klobuchar reinforced her faith in the grand jury system. Her position came despite withering criticism nationwide that the prosecutor in Ferguson had used the grand jury to avoid charging the officer who shot an unarmed man.

Many witnesses and senators at the hearing focused on efforts to reduce racial profiling and police brutality, and to make changes in prison sentencing. But Klobuchar chose to talk about a bill she wrote that would allow for same-day voter registration, reasoning that increasing voter access will ensure greater diversity on grand juries.

"When you limit who can vote, you actually also limit who can serve on grand juries because that's where you get your source for people who can serve on grand juries," Klobuchar said in December 2014.

Two years later, Klobuchar again took care with her words after the high-profile shooting death of Philando Castile, who was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn.

While many other Minnesota politicians publicly condemned the killing, Klobuchar demurred. In a written statement, she called for a full investigation and for doing more to "ensure accountability and trust between our law enforcement and communities they serve."

In the days after the shooting, Klobuchar called for unity during a speech on the Senate floor. The carefully crafted presentation expressed sympathy for Castile along with police officers who were shot and killed in Dallas a day after Castile's death. She also criticized Minnesota protesters who shut down freeways and targeted police after Castile's death.

"America is better than Philando Castile losing his life and a 2-year-old in Minneapolis losing his life in a drive-by shooting," said Klobuchar, referring to a shooting in north Minneapolis in which two children were shot, one of whom died. "And America is better than throwing concrete chunks at a police officer in St. Paul and five Dallas cops being taken from the beat forever," Klobuchar said.

Her speech also called for criminal justice reform, including increased use of police body cameras, diversity in hiring, and training, and for strengthening gun-control laws.

But Klobuchar's record shows she has not been a forceful advocate for criminal justice reform during her 12 years in the Senate: Since the riots in Ferguson, Klobuchar has sponsored or co-sponsored only nine bills intended to make the system fairer, including efforts to reduce prison sentences and increase funding for police de-escalation training. It was the fewest of any U.S. senator running for president. By comparison during the same period, Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has been in the Senate since 2013, has sponsored or co-sponsored 31 bills.

Klobuchar points out that she was an original co-sponsor of a major bill that overhauled the criminal justice system by reducing prison sentences and aiming to prevent ex-felons from offending again. It was signed into law last year. Her campaign also said she advocated for drug courts in a broader bill dealing with substance abuse prevention.

And while sponsoring legislation is not the only role of a senator, it highlights their priorities. She has not signed on to bills that end the use of solitary confinement, prohibits racial profiling by police and ends the practice of cash bail for offenders — measures her presidential opponents have supported.

Those who lobby on behalf of making the criminal justice system fairer say Klobuchar's prosecutorial record is important and relevant. However, they're more interested in how Klobuchar is explaining her record today.

"I would be more interested in what she says now about what she did then because I also think part of a professional life is learning from experience and changing views over time," said Rachal Barkow, a law professor at New York University and a former member of the United States Sentencing Commission. She added that it's unfair to judge her by today's prosecution standards because what's commonly important today wasn't on the minds of prosecutors when Klobuchar was serving.

Klobuchar has recently suggested she could have done more as prosecutor but offered few specifics beyond looking at drug crime sentences to ensure fairness related to race. "You can always do better," she told CNN this month. "You learn in retrospect when you look back on things you can do better."

Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Duluth at 100.5 FM or online at MPRNews.org

Nikki Pederson from APM Reports contributed.