WASHINGTON — The relationship police officers have with the community they protect is personal for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.
A black Muslim who represents one of the poorest parts of Minneapolis, Ellison says he has relied on police when he was the victim of a crime and has himself been a target of racial profiling.
The recent protests across the country, including in Minneapolis, sparked by grand jury decisions to not indict officers involved in the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, both unarmed black men, have stoked old passions for Ellison.
He recalls when his house was broken into, and how helpful officers were. He also remembers when he was living in Washington, D.C., working as a summer associate in the Justice Department and a cop arrested and handcuffed him over a driver’s license that had expired the previous week.
“I tried to imagine if I lived in another neighborhood and I looked different, would that have happened?” he said. “I don’t think so.”
As a young lawyer, Ellison often worked on cases that alleged excessive force by police officers. Yet he also has fought ardently to get police officers higher pay and better equipment. (He recently sought federal funding for transgender-awareness training for Minneapolis Police and Hennepin County Sheriff’s deputies.)
Ellison says he isn’t sure whether relationships between low-income communities and local police departments have deteriorated in recent years, but he believes that “economic stagnation” has played a big role.
“You’re not going to sell loosies on the street if you have a good job. You’re not going to do it,” Ellison said, referring to the recent case of Garner, a New York man selling single cigarettes on the street. Garner resisted arrest, was put in a chokehold and died.
Before being elected to Congress in 2006, Ellison represented the mother of Tycel Nelson, a 17-year-old who was shot and killed by a police officer in Minneapolis in 1990.
“His family is still walking around Minneapolis,” Ellison said. “I see them from time to time.”
Almost 24 years after Nelson’s death, Ellison sat before a microphone in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room on Capitol Hill, again speaking out about police conduct and keeping relationships positive.
“Last week, 15-year-old Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein was run over by a man in an SUV that had a bumper sticker that said ‘Islam is Worse than Ebola’ on it,” Ellison told a panel of senators — including Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken — and a packed room of activists recently. “Today I’d like to talk about discrimination … The events we’ve seen in the last few weeks demonstrate how important it is … for the state to get it right.”
To Ellison, the protests are great for awareness, but he wants to fix what he sees as the broader, underlying problems of systemic poverty and economic abandonment.
“I also don’t think [the police] should fear accountability,” Ellison said. “If I’m a lawyer and I’m messing up, other lawyers are not going to try and protect me. …
I think the police profession needs to do the same thing.”