Public officials have the responsibility to respond to popular unrest at every level of government with broad and tangible criminal justice and policing reform, former Attorney General Eric Holder and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said in a panel discussion with the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service.
During the June 10 event, Holder and Klobuchar joined GU Politics Executive Director Mo Elleithee (SFS ’94) on Zoom to discuss racial justice, social justice and voting rights. The conversation took place amid ongoing national uproar sparked by the murder of George Floyd and a nationwide reckoning about the role, structure and accountability of police forces in the United States.
Lawmakers must introduce comprehensive criminal justice and policing reforms in response to protesters’ demands, according to Klobuchar.
“First of all, we can’t just pretend and make some resolution to say: ‘This was bad this time,’” Klobuchar said. “If we answer this with silence, we are basically complicit. If we answer this with the president’s word, ‘dominance,’ we are monsters. And if we answer it with action, then we are lawmakers, which is what we’re supposed to do.”
Klobuchar, who is currently serving her third term as a Minnesota senator, dropped out of the 2020 presidential race in March to endorse presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
The decision to invite the senator to speak on criminal justice reform was not without controversy. During her tenure as the county attorney for Hennepin County, the most populous county in Minnesota, Klobuchar routinely refrained from prosecuting police officers accused of using excessive force against Black suspects. She also pursued a slate of so-called tough on crime policies, which critics say adversely impacted minority communities. Klobuchar has also received thousands of dollars in campaign support from law enforcement lobbying groups since becoming senator in 2007, according to a recent report from Business Insider.
During the discussion, Klobuchar defended her past prosecutorial practices, mentioning her “valiant” yet unsuccessful effort to make police investigations of officer misconduct public and her reduction of the Black incarceration rate in prisons in her county by 12%. However, experts note that Black residents continued to be incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates compared to white ones.
The senator also stated her support for the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 put forth by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). The bill aims to change the culture of law enforcement, increase police accountability and build community trust with law enforcement, according to a June 8 press release from the House Committee on the Judiciary. The bill proposes a ban on legal chokeholds and federal no-knock warrants, changes to qualified immunity principles and the creation of a National Police Misconduct Registry, among other reforms.
During the event, titled “A Conversation on Justice in America,” Holder also stressed the need for swift legislative action.
“Federal governments as well as state and local governments have to be sure that they are responsive here, and that they come up with concrete, real solutions for the problems we have been dealing with for far too long,” Holder said.
Holder served as attorney general under the Obama administration. During his tenure heading the Department of Justice, Holder pushed for a series of policing reforms, including regulations that would allow the federal government to more easily file civil rights suits against police officers who used excessive force against civilians.
Lawmakers must have the courage to uproot old policing practices and push for reforms, according to Holder.
“We’re dealing with entrenched interests that will push back. The time is now to push back against those entrenched interests and say: ‘Just because we’ve done it this way forever doesn’t mean we’re going to continue to do it this way in the future,’” Holder said.
To catalyze change, Klobuchar and Holder encouraged Georgetown University students to take part in local campaigns, vote in elections for every level of government and support organizations for reforms that students are passionate about.
“I’m actually optimistic about where we are as a nation — cautiously optimistic — that with the involvement of young people like you, the nation can finally live up to its founding ideals,” Holder said.