The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As a prosecutor in heavily white Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar declined to go after police involved in fatal encounters with black men

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who is running for president, listens to former U.S. labor secretary Robert Reich speak during an event in the District on March 5. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Christopher Burns, a 44-year-old black man, was unarmed and at home in Minneapolis with his fiancee and three young children when the police arrived in response to a domestic violence call. The officers put him in a chokehold, and he died on the scene, according to the medical examiner.

The 2002 incident marked the third killing of a black person by the city’s police department that year, prompting local activists to stage rallies and demand that the two officers involved in Burns’s death face charges.

The focus of the community’s anger was Amy Klobuchar, the up-and-coming attorney of Hennepin County, who had declined to prosecute police accused of using excessive force against black suspects.

“WE MUST NOT LET THEM GET AWAY WITH THIS!” one activist group wrote in a newsletter. “Many people are watching to see if she will really fight for justice in this case.”

Klobuchar, then 42, declined to bring charges against the officers, and a grand jury she convened did not indict them.

Nearly two decades later, Klobuchar is a Democratic senator running for president, the culmination of a remarkably smooth rise built in part on the tough-on-crime image she cultivated during eight years as a prosecutor. But her record from that time is getting a closer look as she introduces herself beyond heavily white Minnesota, courting an increasingly diverse Democratic base that is closely attuned to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) claimed the incarceration rate for African-Americans dropped 65 percent when she was a prosecutor. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

As chief prosecutor for Minnesota’s most populous county from 1999 to 2007, Klobuchar declined to bring charges in more than two dozen cases in which people were killed in encounters with police.

At the same time, she aggressively prosecuted smaller offenses such as vandalism and routinely sought longer-than-recommended sentences, including for minors. Such prosecutions, done with the aim of curbing more serious crimes, have had mixed results and have been criticized for their disproportionate effect on poor and minority communities.

“We were already a community in distress when she became Hennepin County attorney,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and former president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP. “Rather than taking steps to help mitigate some of those concerns and issues, during her tenure in office, her policies exacerbated the situation.”

Klobuchar’s positions were largely mainstream, coming after a historically violent period for Minnesota and the nation. But views have shifted sharply since then, particularly among liberal Democrats, as concerns mount over the impact of aggressive policing on communities of color.

Similar questions are emerging about some of Klobuchar’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, including Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), a former state attorney general and local prosecutor who has been forced to defend her record on the death penalty. Former vice president Joe Biden, who is expected to make an announcement about the race next month, led the effort to pass a 1994 crime law that has been blamed for contributing to the mass incarceration of minorities over two decades.

In her first in-depth comments as a presidential candidate about this period of her career, Klobuchar said she reserved her most aggressive actions for repeat offenders.

“When I first came into the office, the major thing I heard from the African American community, bar none, was that there were a bunch of their kids that were killed by gangsters,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We simply went in and did our jobs. We prosecuted those cases and got results for our community.”

Her campaign noted that the prison incarceration rate for African Americans in the county declined during her tenure, though experts said that did little to ameliorate a dramatic disparity between black and white prison rates.

Klobuchar said she supports recent decisions by several county attorneys in Minnesota not to use grand juries in police-involved killings, which she said will increase accountability for prosecutors.

Asked if she has any regrets from her own tenure, she said she wished she had taken more “individual responsibility” in those cases.

“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,” she said.

Tough-on-crime prosecutor

Klobuchar was elected prosecutor by promising “meaningful and, when appropriate, severe” consequences for people who break the law.

When the 38-year-old corporate lawyer launched her 1998 campaign, the Twin Cities were recovering from a long wave of violent crime, and many communities were demanding help. Minneapolis had earned the nickname “Murderapolis” in 1995, when its homicide rate peaked. At the time, the ratio of African Americans to whites in state prison was among the worst in the country.

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During her campaign, Klobuchar vowed a zero-tolerance approach toward nonviolent crimes by young people, including petty theft and vandalism.

“The broken windows theory is correct,” she wrote in a 1998 candidate statement, embracing the policing theory popularized by then-New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton, in the mid-1990s. The idea was that cracking down on minor offenses can prevent more serious crimes.

After beating her opponent by less than 1 percent, the new county attorney followed through on her campaign promises, adopting an aggressive approach to felony and juvenile prosecutions across dozens of police jurisdictions in and around Minneapolis.

Under Klobuchar, local prosecutors were assigned to police precincts to crack down on smaller offenses such as check forgery. In cases of property crime, they sought longer-than-recommended sentences for offenders with five convictions. Some men who failed to pay child support received felony charges.

In the interview, Klobuchar cited figures from the Vera Institute of Justice showing that the prison incarceration rate for African Americans in the county declined by about 13 percent during her tenure.

Jasmine Heiss, director of outreach with the Vera Institute, said the figure mirrored statewide trends that were the result of a variety of factors. She said the disparity between black and white prison incarceration was nearly four times the national average.

“Hennepin County overall — both during Amy Klobuchar’s tenure and subsequently — has not meaningfully addressed the shocking racial disparities in the local justice system,” Heiss said.

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A diverse field

Klobuchar is positioning herself as a centrist in a diverse field of candidates, some of whom have nurtured ties with the black community. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is African American, promoted the criminal justice reform bill that was enacted late last year. Harris, a former California attorney general, has said her parents’ South Asian and Jamaican heritage informs her efforts to promote racial justice.

Several candidates, including Klobuchar, have endorsed some form of reparations for African Americans as redress for slavery and America’s history of racial discrimination.

Klobuchar’s campaign noted that she was one of about a dozen original co-sponsors of the First Step Act, a sweeping bipartisan measure aimed at lowering the recidivism rate. It received broad support in Congress and became law in December of last year.

But critics say Klobuchar has never publicly reckoned with a period of her career that they recall with bitterness.

“We even saw Hillary Clinton apologize for the use of the term ‘super-predators,’ ” said Armstrong, the former Minneapolis NAACP president. “We’ve not seen Amy Klobuchar take the same steps to apologize or reach out to our community to make amends.”

Clinton expressed regret as a presidential candidate about her 1996 remark about the “kinds of kids that are called super-predators,” using a racially loaded term to describe young people who she suggested commit crime because they have “no conscience, no empathy.”

In the interview with The Post, Klobuchar acknowledged that her rhetoric about not letting juvenile crime “go unpunished” might have been perceived as harsh by some African Americans but said her actions were directed by what county residents wanted.

“I understand how those words mean something that is not good in the African American community. It makes it sound like you want to put their kids behind bars, and that is not what I did when I was county attorney,” she said.

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Her campaign noted her achievements in other areas as a prosecutor, including a partnership with the Innocence Project to prevent wrongful convictions that involved videotaping police interrogations and DNA testing. Klobuchar also prioritized white-collar crimes, which her allies say led to harsher punishment for white offenders.

'Not one' police prosecution

Klobuchar easily won reelection as county attorney on Nov. 5, 2002. Four days before, Burns was killed when two Minneapolis police officers responded to a call from his Chicago Avenue home.

Accounts differ on what happened. In a lawsuit against the officers and the city of Minneapolis, which settled for $300,000 in 2007, Burns’s fiancee said that police handcuffed Burns before beating and strangling him with an aggressive neck hold that fractured the cartilage around his throat. Among the witnesses was his 4-year-old daughter, the lawsuit stated.

Police said Burns struggled violently for several minutes and that they responded with a sanctioned form of neck hold. A lawyer for the officers later called the case a “bad combination of circumstances for the guy,” pointing to Burns’s history of high blood pressure and heart disease as possible factors in his death.

The use of grand juries in police-involved killings, as in this case, was a common practice in Minnesota and around the country at the time. Still, Klobuchar’s decision not to bring charges or appoint a special prosecutor in the Burns case angered critics.

Michelle Gross, a local activist who launched Communities United Against Police Brutality in 2000, said incidents with police caused a total of 40 civilian deaths during Klobuchar’s tenure. The Post counted more than 25 such cases in a review of news coverage from the time; the majority of those killed were people of color or mentally ill.

“She did not prosecute a single one of them,” Gross said. “Not one.”

Years later, after pressure from the community, several county attorneys started to make their own choices about whether to prosecute officers rather than hand the decisions to grand juries, which operate outside of public view and have tended to side with law enforcement.

Klobuchar praised this trend, which she described as an “effort to increase accountability for prosecutorial decisions.”

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Reflecting on Klobuchar’s tough-on-crime record, some experts said she would have had limited awareness of the impact of her policies on African Americans.

“A lot of what we know about how detrimental mass incarceration is in communities — particularly communities of color — we just didn’t know then,” said John Roman, criminal justice expert and a senior fellow in the Economics, Justice and Society Group at NORC at the University of Chicago. “At the time, we were coming off of 20 years of now-unthinkable levels of violence and grasping at ways to protect communities, and there was a raging debate about whether prison was the right answer.”

Monique Cullars-Doty, whose nephew was fatally shot by officers in St. Paul in 2015, said she does not consider Klobuchar an ally.

“If she cared about black lives, she would already be engaged and advocating for change,” Doty said.

Jeff Hayden, a Democratic state senator in Minnesota who is African American and a friend of Klobuchar’s, said he “wouldn’t disagree” with critics that race relations “hasn’t been something that’s been her focus in Minnesota.” He said Klobuchar must fully address the issue as the primary season heats up.

“She’s on a stage now that’s much bigger than just being Minnesota’s favorite gal,” Hayden said. “I look forward to it as an opportunity to put these things on the table, and for her to start delivering these messages and to be a leader.”

Alice Crites and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.