CLE Recap: Commemorating George Floyd's Murder with Action

2206 - HCBA DEI CLE George Floyd

Local legal leaders gathered to discuss progress, problems, and possibilities with the justice system two years after George Floyd's death. 

On May 27, just after the two-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Officer Derek Chauvin, several attorneys working in the criminal justice system convened for a CLE that was part of the May 2022 CLE Series on Racial Equity and Justice (sponsored by the HCBA Diversity Committee) to discuss the progress that has been made in criminal justice reform, and the long road ahead to address racial disparities in the justice system. 

In opening remarks of the panel, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison remarked that there have been real improvements to the system, but also delays and pushback to making systemic change. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi agreed. “There are voices being heard now that I’ve never heard from in my eleven years in office,” he said. “But this is an issue that’s deeper than accountability for [Chauvin]. What needs to change so that something like this doesn’t happen?”

The panelists all agreed that failures in the criminal justice system contributed to Floyd’s death. “Floyd’s murder was in line with the experience of communities of color, who have been dealing with police brutality for a long time,” said Lolita Ulloa, Civil Deputy of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. “The force of community response to this violence shows the aptitude and leadership of our communities here in Minnesota.”

So, what needs to change? “You must prosecute crime,” Ellison said. “Nobody is above the law. And nobody is beneath the law. And as simple as that sounds, we ain’t been doing it. Administrative responses have to kick in. If Derek Chauvin had been fired after his twelfth citizen complaint, he wouldn’t be looking at twenty years [in prison]. And Chauvin wasn’t in the top ten of officers with the most excessive force complaints against them.”

"I think we, as a society, are starting to forget the lessons we learned [after Floyd’s murder]. We’re seeing major pushbacks to the reforms that have been made.”

Choi also cautioned against viewing incremental progress as a given. Floyd’s murder to him was indicative of the lessons we haven’t learned. Community response to police brutality followed by few if any change is a predictable pattern in the United States. “When people ask me to define systemic racism, I say, ‘Loud voices asking for simple change, but nothing changes.’ And we see that a lot,” Choi remarked. “And I think we, as a society, are starting to forget the lessons we learned [after Floyd’s murder]. We’re seeing major pushbacks to the reforms that have been made.”

When asked to elaborate on lessons learned, First Assistant Public Defender Lisa Lopez cautioned against viewing Floyd as a martyr or discussing the lessons learned as a result of his death. “Speaking as a person of color myself, and as a public defender, I’m hesitant to speak about lessons learned, because all of this should have been known. The issues that are coming up now we should have been talking about,” Lopez said. “George Floyd died. That was something horrific that happened.  I’m hesitant to talk about lessons learned, because … if I’m the family, I feel like I paid the price for that. For the lesson that you’re learning.”

“Something we say a lot in my line of work is, the way things are is not an accident,” Justin Terrell, moderator of the panel and executive director of the Minnesota Justice Center, added. “The systems we rely on for public safety in this country were developed at a time when we were not a multicultural society.” 

Several of the panelists emphasized the critical role of diverse voices in reforming a justice system that unfairly targets people of color. “At the County Attorney’s office, we are heavily recruiting in communities of color, working to hire and retain people of color, elevating their voices,” Ulloa said. “We’re trying to extend the branches of power to those voices. We’re also looking at prevention. Jobs for youth. They need that in the summer. How can we, as a prosecutor’s office, look into that? It’s non-traditional but we’re making it our job.” Ulloa also emphasized that the community should be holding officials, including herself and the other panelists, accountable. 

“It’s important for our organization to hire diverse attorneys and staff at all levels because they’re going to bring that lived experience to representation"

The Public Defender’s office is also focused on adding diverse voices. “It’s important for our organization to hire diverse attorneys and staff at all levels because they’re going to bring that lived experience to representation, they’re going to believe their clients, they’re going to hear their clients’ experiences and say, ‘I believe that. I can see that. I’ve experienced that before.’ So, diversity is incredibly important for our organization,” explained Lopez. “Another step we’re taking as an organization is implementing a structured training program, so that attorneys have the tools to be successful, and have mentors. When I came up, I didn’t have that. Now there’s a ten-week training program. Very few public defender’s offices have that. They want to, but Hennepin County has actually figured out a way to do it.”

The panelists also contended with the nature of justice itself, and what justice could and should look like. Terrell shared that in his organization, they look at justice from a variety of angles and focus especially on whether the outcomes of a verdict are restorative or punitive. How, he posed to the panel, should we distinguish between accountability and punishment?

In response, Civil Deputy Ulloa emphasized that her office has an ethical responsibility to pursue justice for victims of crimes. “I’m not saying everything is perfect,” she added. “Clearly there are reports that show there are issues, but in my office, we look at what we’re charging and we make sure we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. We look at it from a restorative angle. But we have a responsibility to prosecute people who are doing wrong, whether they’re in North Minneapolis or Eden Prairie.”

Attorney General Ellison shared that from his position, outcomes aren’t necessarily “wins” or “losses,” but it remains important that his office monitors the outcomes, asking, “What purpose does this [verdict] serve? How does it contribute to public safety?”

Lopez suggested that reform in the criminal justice system could make the line between accountability and punishment less blurry. “It’s hard to get evidence suppressed in a case when the stop is valid, the search is valid, the arrest is valid,” she pointed out. “It’s difficult to question an officer’s credibility when you look at the body cam and they are kind and polite and treat our clients with basic respect. That instills faith in the system overall. So, I think if we could switch our mindset from, ‘How do we punish people we think are guilty or deserving’ to ‘how can we do what’s best for our community’ a lot of that is going to fall in line.”

“Reckoning with the current system we have, it’s dangerous to believe it’s all working perfectly,” said Ramsey County Attorney Choi. “In fact, we need to start bringing community perspective. We need to look at the role of prosecutors in the justice system … There is so much room for transformation and new thinking, but it should always be done around delivering a better version of justice for everyone in our community. And I think by doing that, we’re actually going to keep everyone more safe.”

By Elsa Cournoyer
Elsa is the Communications Assistant for the Hennepin County Bar Association. 

Managing Editor
Elsa Cournoyer

Executive Editor

Joseph Satter