Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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

Ostrow, 63, is an assistant Anoka County attorney. He told Sahan Journal he’s especially 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. Yet, Ostrow said, the penalties for selling and possessing fentanyl are too low. Ostrow said he would “aggressively” prosecute people who knowingly sell fentanyl.

“I don’t shy away from the fact that I think we need to make sure there are consequences for people who violate the law,” Ostrow said. “But at the same time, we have to be steadfast in protecting everybody’s rights.”

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

Ostrow also represented Minneapolis’ First Ward on the city council from 1998 to 2009, and is responsible for leading the creation of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District. He served as the council president during his second term.

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

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 attorney and how the role impacts them? What about young people going through either the juvenile justice process or child protection cases?

People should know that the person that holds this position has a bigger impact on making sure that they are safe and making sure that their rights are protected than any other elected person in Hennepin County. It’s that important of a role.

The Hennepin County attorney sets policies in how cases are prosecuted, how rights are protected of people that are prosecuted by the office, and the office has an incredibly important leadership role to make sure that people’s safety is protected. 

There’s also a whole wide range of things that the County Attorney’s office does that has an impact on people’s lives—everything from child protection to juvenile courts, to collection of child support, to representing the county in important civil cases. It’s a very broad range of obligations. 

With our juvenile justice system, we really have to put in the resources to have safe, appropriate, and effective places to not just detain but provide services to violent juvenile offenders. Too often we’re releasing violent juvenile offenders back into the community without any kind of support services. That’s dangerous for the community and it’s not in their interest either. 

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

Everyone deserves a community that’s safe. When we’re looking at racial equity issues, we have to look at how we prosecute, but we also have to look at how we protect the rights of victims. Many of our immigrant communities came to this country from places where they did not feel safe. For immigrants who came to this country believing that they were coming to a place that would protect their safety, we have a sacred obligation to keep everyone safe. 

We need to recognize that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities and immigrant communities aren’t monolithic. Everyone has a unique experience. It’s going to be very important to me that we work with culturally competent community organizations and others to make sure that we’re very zealous in terms of advocating for the victims of crimes. 

As it relates to racial equity in the court system, the most important part of this has got 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 that we will have a public dashboard of cases charged, cases not charged, and dispositions.

We will make sure that we are constantly evaluating that for disparate impacts on people of color and immigrant communities. And we will be very public about that. And we will have public hearings at least twice a year where this information is shared. That’s the best remedy in regaining trust. 

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

No, I do not. I’ll be focusing on people that are selling fentanyl to our kids, people that are making our communities unsafe, and I will not be prosecuting women for exercising their right to choose.

How do you plan to address rising violent crime while also implementing criminal justice reform measures, since a lot of people think of it as one or the other?

This has been falsely presented as a choice–that somehow we can’t be tough on violent crime and hold people accountable while at the same time reforming the criminal justice system. We can and must do both.

The reality is the vast majority of people that come into contact with the criminal justice system are people who have made mistakes, people that have addictions, people who we’re not necessarily afraid of. There’s a relatively small number of people who we have reason to be afraid of, who have caused people harm, use violence, and abuse weapons. 

When we look at the issues of criminal justice reform, I’m a strong advocate of drug court, diversion, and ways that we can keep lower level offenses off people’s records. Those are all critical. I’m a strong believer in being able to expunge criminal records for lower level offenses. All those things are really important and I’ll fight as hard as anyone for those.

Making sure we are tough on those relatively small number of people that are creating a significant spike in violent crime, that’s something we must do. But at the same time, we need to make sure that our criminal justice system is reformed. Once people have paid their price–they’ve completed treatment, they’ve got jail time or whatever the consequences might have been–as a society, we have to move towards accepting and allowing people to move forward with their lives so they can get a job, and they can go to school.

What roles should the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office play in reviewing and prosecuting officer-involved killings?

It’s important that the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office respect the Constitution and respect the rights of everyone who was charged with a crime. A very significant part of that is full disclosure of any relevant police misconduct in a situation where a police officer may not have been truthful. Right now we’re not doing that the way we need to.

I’ve actually been involved in litigation on this exact issue because the city of Minneapolis is engaging in what’s known as “coaching.” By using this coaching, they’ve suggested that even when there’s a sustained violation by a police officer, that that’s not public and that no one can have access to it. That’s denying individuals their constitutional rights. 

It’s really important for us to stress 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 when there’s a video or any report that shows that maybe there was something untruthful or there was excessive force, that that be provided to police administration. There needs to be a system to do that.

As far as police shootings are concerned, I want to take a really hard look at this issue. It’s a really tough issue because politics in my view should never determine whether a police officer is or is not charged with a crime. I do have some concerns about how we insulate that decision from politics–how we make sure it’s based on the law and the facts, and not on politics. I’m not certain where I’ve landed. 

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

It’s absolutely critical that the prosecutors have access to any sustained violations of police conduct and any sustained circumstances where officers have testified untruthfully. That’s the only way we can appropriately judge the credibility of our own witnesses.

It’s awfully hard for me to reconcile the evidence in the Jaleel Stallings case with the prosecution that was brought, and I don’t have all the inside information. Clearly, the jury very quickly believed that Mr. Stallings acted in self-defense.

That case also points out that when law enforcement is a potential target or victim in a high-profile case like that, are there certain circumstances that make it difficult for the county attorney to be objective? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered because of that case.

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal and corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of...