Former Minneapolis City Council president wants transparency in county prosecutor

Former Minneapolis City Council Speaker Paul Ostrow said he brings a nonpartisan platform and 25 years of public law experience to the Hennepin County prosecutor’s run.

Ostrow, 63, is an assistant district attorney for Anoka County. He told the Sahan Journal he was particularly concerned about deaths caused by fentanyl, a type of synthetic opioid.

In 2019, synthetic opioids accounted for more than half of opioid overdose deaths in Minnesota. Still, Ostrow said, the penalties for selling and possessing fentanyl are too low. Ostrow said he would “aggressively” pursue people who knowingly sell fentanyl.

“I don’t mind the fact that I think we need to make sure there are consequences for people who break the law,” Ostrow said. “But at the same time, we must be determined to protect everyone’s rights.”

Ostrow graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1983. He worked for the Blue Earth County Attorney’s Office and a small firm that represented the towns of Little Canada and Blaine in civil and criminal cases.

Ostrow also represented Minneapolis’ First Ward on City Council from 1998 to 2009 and is responsible for leading the creation of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District. He served as Chairman of the Board during his second term.

Ostrow noted that the Hennepin County prosecutor is a nonpartisan position. Even though he’s a Democrat, he said it’s important for people to recognize that the county attorney is not a political role, but an attorney general.

Sahan Journal recently spoke with Ostrow about his campaign. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What should people, especially immigrants and people of color, know about the Hennepin County District Attorney and the impact of his role on them? What about young people going through either the juvenile justice process or child protection cases?

People need to know that the person holding this office has a greater impact on security and the protection of their rights than any other elected person in Hennepin County. It’s such an important role.

The Hennepin County District Attorney sets policies for how cases are prosecuted, how the rights of those prosecuted by the office are protected, and the office has an extremely important leadership role in ensuring that the safety of people is protected.

There’s also a wide range of things the county attorney’s office does that impact people’s lives, from child protection to juvenile court, to collecting child support, up to representing the county in important civil cases. This is a very wide range of bonds.

With our juvenile justice system, we really need to invest the resources necessary to have safe, appropriate and efficient places not only to detain, but also to provide services to violent juvenile offenders. Too often we release violent juvenile offenders back into the community without any kind of support services. It is dangerous for the community and it is not in its interest either.

How do you plan to address racial equity issues in prosecutions?

Everyone deserves a safe community. When we look at issues of racial equity, we need to look at how we prosecute, but we also need to look at how we protect the rights of victims. Many of our immigrant communities came to this country from places where they felt unsafe. For immigrants who came to this country believing they were coming to a place that would protect their safety, we have a sacred obligation to keep everyone safe.

We must recognize that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and immigrant communities are not monolithic. Everyone lives a unique experience. It will be very important to me that we work with culturally competent community organizations and others to ensure that we are very zealous in advocating for victims of crime.

When it comes to racial equity in the justice system, the most important part has to be transparency and accountability. My intention is to have the most transparent and accountable county attorney’s office in the history of Hennepin County. And what that’s going to mean is we’ll have a public dashboard of charged cases, uncharged cases, and disposition.

We will make sure to constantly assess this for the disparate impacts on people of color and immigrant communities. And we will be very public about it. And we will have public hearings at least twice a year where this information will be shared. This is the best remedy for regaining confidence.

If Roe v. Wade is canceled, do you plan to pursue abortion cases in Hennepin County?

No I do not have. I will focus on the people who sell fentanyl to our children, the people who make our communities unsafe, and I will not sue women for exercising their right to choose.

How do you plan to address the increase in violent crime while implementing criminal justice reform measures, since many people think it’s one or the other?

It was falsely presented as a choice – that somehow we can’t get tough on violent crime and hold people accountable while reforming the criminal justice system. We can and must do both.

The reality is that the vast majority of people who come into contact with the criminal justice system are people who have made mistakes, people with addictions, people we are not necessarily afraid of. There are a relatively small number of people that we have reason to be afraid of, who have hurt people, who have resorted to violence and who have abused weapons.

When we look at issues of criminal justice reform, I’m a big proponent of drug court, diversion, and ways to keep lesser offenses off people’s files. These are all reviews. I strongly believe that it is possible to expunge criminal records for lower level offences. All of these things are really important and I will fight as hard as anyone for them.

This is something we need to do ensuring that we are tough on the relatively small number of people who are creating a major increase in violent crime. But at the same time, we need to make sure that our criminal justice system is reformed. Once people have paid their price – they have completed their treatment, they have been imprisoned or whatever the consequences were – as a society we have to accept and allow people to move on with their lives so that they can get a job, and they can go to school.

What roles should the Hennepin County District Attorney’s Office play in investigating and prosecuting officer-involved murders?

It is important that the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office uphold the Constitution and respect the rights of anyone charged with a crime. A very important part of this is full disclosure of any relevant police misconduct in a situation where a police officer may not have been telling the truth. Right now we’re not doing it right.

I’ve actually been involved in litigation over this exact issue because the city of Minneapolis engages in what’s called “coaching.” Using this coaching, they suggested that even when there is an offense supported by a police officer, it is not public and no one can access it. It is to deprive individuals of their constitutional rights.

It’s really important for us to point out that the County Attorney’s Office does not have the authority to reform the Minneapolis Police Department or any other department. The county attorney’s office, however, has an obligation that where there is video or any report that shows there may have been something wrong or excessive force, this is provided to the police administration. You need a system to do that.

When it comes to police shootings, I want to look very closely at this issue. This is a really difficult question because politics, in my opinion, should never determine whether or not a police officer is charged with a crime. I have some concerns about how we isolate this decision from politics – how we make sure it’s based on law and facts, not politics. I don’t know where I landed.

How will you review police testimony and evidence in cases presented by Minneapolis police, in light of the Jaleel Stallings case?

It is absolutely essential that prosecutors have access to any sustained violations of police conduct and any sustained circumstances where officers gave false testimony. It’s the only way to properly judge the credibility of our own witnesses.

It’s terribly difficult for me to reconcile the evidence in the Jaleel Stallings case with the charge that’s been brought, and I don’t have all the inside information. Obviously, the jury very quickly believed that Mr. Stallings had acted in self-defence.

This case also highlights that when law enforcement is a potential target or victim in such a high-profile case, are there certain circumstances that prevent the county attorney from being objective? There are many questions that need to be answered because of this case.

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