Amy Klobuchar’s record as prosecutor comes back to haunt her

As news of her career as a prosecutor goes national, the Minnesota senator may get a chilly reception from primary voters.

As news of her career as a prosecutor goes national, the Minnesota senator may get a chilly reception from primary voters. Stephen Maturen/Getty

When Amy Klobuchar became Hennepin County attorney in 1999, being a tough-on-crime hard-ass was the fashion of the day, delivering the harshest penalties possible unto bad guys great and small.

Prosecutors around the country were playing follow the leader, aping the “broken windows theory” popularized by New York Police Commissioner William Bratton. The idea was that if you zealously pursued livability crimes – lighting up the kid who broke into a garage in Northeast, or the guy smoking pot on his porch in Powderhorn Park – you would snuff out more severe behavior in its infancy.

It worked. Sort of.

Crime rates tumbled as prisons overcrowded. But there was a downside, of course.

Mass incarceration is something akin to fishing with nets. You tend to catch anything that swims near, be they the truly dangerous or simply the bumbling and down on their luck. It’s also wildly expensive, ruining lives over small infractions and weighing disproportionately on those of a browner hue.

Klobuchar took it further than most. She even formed a task force to prosecute crimes like graffiti and vandalism. And when it came to police shootings or misconduct accusations, she was as hands-off as it gets.

During her eight-year reign as Hennepin’s crimefighter-in-chief, county law enforcement officers were involved in 29 deaths. Klobuchar did what prosecutors had always done, referring questionable cases to grand juries, which were prone to routinely clearing officers in even the most egregious cases. Not a single charge was ever issued.

It’s possible that none were merited – or at least none offered the kind of evidence for successful prosecution. Then again, this wasn’t an era when the Minneapolis police were playing error-free.

During that same time, the city paid $4.8 million in settlements to make 122 misconduct claims go away. The zeal with which she pursued small-time bad guys was clearly not being applied to her own side of the fence.

Unfortunately for Klobuchar, her quest for the presidency is causing some to reexamine her tenure. With the benefit of hindsight, her reputation as crimefighter extraordinaire has lost considerable luster.

The Washington Post recently covered the 2002 death of Christopher Burns. Police responding to a domestic call placed him in a chokehold. He died in his home in front of his kids.

Though the case was eventually settled for $300,000, no charges were ever filed.

Vox, The Daily Beast, MPR, and New York Magazine have also revisited her record. Though each paint her as a creature of her time, they also raise questions of whether she’s truly evolved since then, and whether she retains a tin ear on matters of race.

These stories proliferate on the heels of the Mean Amy Affair, in which some staffers said her version of Minnesota Nice had a Trumpian quality to it, dressed in cruelty behind closed doors.

Klobuchar is already polling at just 1-3 percent in the Democratic primary field. That isn’t much a deal-breaker at this early stage. Yet as she gets more scrutiny from the national press, which won’t pull its punches like we do here in Minnesota, she runs the risk of going from sensible centrist to callous ladder-climber.

In the Age of Trump, one might argue that no sin is too great to prevent election. But it’s one thing to be a hero of the GOP, which now grants absolution for pretty much anything as long as you cut taxes and bag on immigrants.

It’s entirely another to get through the Democratic primary, where wanton jailing and being mean to the servants is in direct violation of the progressive heart.