Local View: Duluthians must join conversations on public safety

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Jen McEwen

As an attorney and former public defender, I have deep familiarity with our criminal justice system. I’ve seen it at its best and at its worst. As a society, we must dismantle structural racism and make fundamental changes. At the heart of these conversations is a call to reimagine how to best achieve true public safety for all.

In Duluth, as we marked 100 years since the horrifying mob murders of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie committed by our forebears, we know that we have a lot to reflect on in our own community. While we can be proud of some of the advancements we have made through policy changes and forward-looking leadership, much work remains.

Many of us recall when a Duluth police officer was fired in 2012 after he repeatedly closed-fist punched a 50-year old indigenous man in a wheelchair at the detox center and pulled him to the ground in his wheelchair. Then, in 2017, another Duluth police officer dragged a handcuffed indigenous man through the skywalk, banging his head against a door frame. Police Chief Mike Tusken moved to fire the officer, stating that the officer’s actions were “contrary to his training and department policy. … (The officer) violated our mission, vision, and core beliefs by betraying public trust and our social contract with our community.” However, a state arbitrator overturned the city’s decision and reinstated his employment.

You might be surprised to learn that nearly half of police officers who have been terminated for misconduct in Minnesota were later reinstated — pointing to one of the many areas of our state law that is due for change.

While announcing a 100-years overdue pardon, Gov. Tim Walz said this week, “There is a direct line between what happened … with Max Mason to what happened to George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis.” Max Mason was a black man scapegoated and wrongly convicted out of the same false accusation that gave excuse to the murderers of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie.


There is a direct line. There is also a direct line to ongoing racial injustices here in Duluth, lived now by people of color in our community.

Our experiences in Duluth, past and present, inform us about why we must do more now. The ways racism manifests in law enforcement harms communities throughout our state, including our own. As agents of the state, police officers must exercise great discipline and responsibility to hold the public trust. What we are living through now is a reckoning of a broken social contract — a reckoning of longstanding and repeated betrayals of trust in our community and institutions.

With the special session at the state capital this week focused on public safety, we should take the lead from the Minnesota People of Color and Indigenous legislative caucus (POCI caucus) and embrace an agenda of comprehensive reform. A large and diverse list of labor, business, religious, civil rights, health, and other organizations around the state, in addition to the governor, have expressed their support. The proposed legislation seeks to increase accountability, address arbitration, reform hiring practices, raise standards of conduct, rebuild trust, and reimagine what public safety can mean for all.

We cannot wait any longer. It is time to seize this moment and embrace comprehensive changes to our system that are so long overdue. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “Wait has almost always meant Never.”

We must act now, boldly and with urgency, to rebuild our broken social contract. Duluthians must be part of the solution.

Jen McEwen of Duluth is an attorney, former public defender, and candidate for Minnesota Senate.

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