When our editorial board members sought to define four issues dominate our readers’ concerns, we quickly agreed violent crime, policing issues and drug trafficking had to be on our list.
And while these issues intertwine with almost every elected office, they converge in the Office of the Attorney General, the state’s chief legal officer. The office provides legal representation to over 100 state agencies, boards and commissions and represents Minnesota in state and federal court and administrative hearings. While these responsibilities are vast, our current climate focuses on crime, violence and policing.
In 2016, crime across Minnesota reached its lowest statewide rate in 50 years, according to data collected by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Violent crime rose less than 1% from 2015 to 2016. In 2021, violent crime in Minnesota rose by nearly 22% from a year earlier. Homicides totaled 201, a nearly 9% increase, with 97 of them occurring in Minneapolis.
Responding to the disquieting reversal of a longtime trend toward less crime must begin with fully staffing local police departments, many of which have struggled to recruit and retain officers. Police deter crime by increasing the perception that criminals will be caught and punished, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Regrettably, the Minnesota Legislature failed this year to finish work on a public safety bill that would have channeled money to cities for recruiting incentives and one-time bonuses for current officers. Also in the mix were more money for courts and police body cameras to increase officer accountability.
This spring the Minnesota Board of Police Officer Standards and Training approved new rules that enable law enforcement agencies to weed out the few bad actors in their ranks. The rules allow the board to revoke the license of an officer who violates its conduct guidelines. This is progress. Before, the board could only revoke a license when an officer was convicted of a felony or some gross misdemeanors.
Legislative negotiations on the public safety bill broke down over familiar, left-right divides between tough-on-crime measures such as longer sentences and probation periods and more holistic responses to crime, such as community-based prevention and intervention programs. The inaction is inexcusable.
When we asked the two candidates for attorney general, DFL incumbent Keith Ellison and Republican Jim Schultz, about these vital issues, in some cases their answers coincided more than we might have predicted but diverged dramatically in others.
Ellison emphasized the extensive breadth of his department’s activities, from consumer protection to the opioid lawsuits to defending state agencies. Schultz concentrated on criminal issues and prosecution.
Both men said they support strong, fully funded police forces. “I’ve never supported defunding the police,” Ellison said, although he supported Minneapolis amendment two, supported by council members who did state the goal was to defund. Ellison said he favored the amendment because it offered an excellent opportunity to reinvent policing. Schultz countered that Ellison has spoken negatively about police officers and has damaged morale among the force.
Ellison emphasized steps taken to crack down on “ghost” guns, those without serial numbers and untraceable. He stated weapons of war such as AR-15s should be banned. Schultz said he supported enforcing current gun regulations but did not agree to any expansions.
We believe those who choose to pursue violent crimes, such as carjacking, need to be kept off the streets and properly processed by the judicial system. However, we also encourage more holistic responses to crime, such as community-based prevention and intervention programs. Both candidates offered similar statements, although Schultz emphasized detention while Ellison suggested alternatives, especially for juveniles. “Treat juveniles as juveniles,” Ellison said.
Both agreed stopping the surge in violent crime is essential. Schultz said he was deeply troubled by the dramatic decline in individuals receiving the mandatory minimum sentence for crimes involving guns. “We have to make clear that when you commit gun crime in Minnesota, there will be serious consequences to it,” Schultz said.
Ellison noted the process is complex, from arrest to arraignment to jail time or release. The defendant, the judge and the attorneys involved make most of those decisions which can often include allowing the accused to be released.
Our editorial board believes that stopping the flow of dangerous, illegal drugs into Minnesota is intertwined with the problems of violence. As for the legalization of marijuana, Ellison said yes, while Schultz said no.
Each candidate was asked about abortion, currently legal in Minnesota. Our board agrees that changes to abortion law must come through a vote of the people as a constitutional amendment.
Schultz said, as attorney general, he would stay non-political and enforce existing laws regardless of his personal opinion. “What I would be is simply somebody who enforces Minnesota law, whatever it may be, I’ve got my views on this issue. But my job, fundamentally, is to enforce Minnesota law.”
Ellison said he fully supported a woman’s right to have a safe and legal abortion. He also said he would resist extradition for someone who has come to Minnesota for an abortion as well as legally defend someone in another state for an abortion in Minnesota.
We encourage voters to think through their choices for this office carefully. While addressing our concerns over crime and violence is extremely important, it is essential to recognize the office has vast responsibilities throughout our state. This may not be the time to focus only on one issue.