Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said his strength is building coalitions as illustrated in his 15 years as a state representative. 

Winkler, 46, said that if he’s elected, he will prioritize improving public safety through building trust and accountability between the public, police, and county attorney. He told Sahan Journal he brings years of experience building coalitions, working in state and local government, and collaborating with communities.

“The county attorney has a lot of discretion about how to use public resources to pursue public safety,” Winkler said. “Part of that power includes keeping the public safety system accountable and making sure communities are well served by our public safety system instead of just assuming an old model where we are trying to incarcerate as many people as possible.”

Winkler has been a state representative in District 46A, which includes Golden Valley, Plymouth, and St. Louis Park, for seven non-consecutive terms. He spearheaded the I-35W bridge compensation fund program after the bridge collapsed in 2007. Winkler also authored and passed a bill in 2013 that automatically adjusts the state minimum wage to keep up with inflation.

As majority leader, Winkler led the state house through the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. He graduated from the University of Minnesota law school in 2001.

Sahan Journal recently spoke with Winkler 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?

The Hennepin County attorney is responsible for felony prosecution in the county, child protection cases, and for a number of other important issues like child support enforcement, representing the county on environmental enforcement, addressing big thefts, and trafficking cases. 

What immigrants, people of color, and young people should think about is that it is a large public law office with the resources to try and make the legal system help people be safe and have an opportunity to live a better life. 

In the Somali community, because of the heavy investigation footprint of the FBI in the past, there’s a lot of suspicion about working with law enforcement to help clear cases. Finding trusted community partners is important to work with immigrant communities to make sure that when crimes are committed and people are harmed, that we have a system that the community trusts to follow up and investigate. 

Also, the penalty for the same crime can vary drastically if you’re an immigrant because of the immigration consequences of felony charges. We have to be very careful about how we are charging cases based on the immigration effect that could happen on people’s families.

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

There’s a lot of steps along the way through the prosecution where there’s discretion. And the county attorney’s office has to examine its own internal bias to ensure that decisions regarding charging, bail, upward departures, certification of juveniles as adults, and sentence requests are not discriminatory. That is what the county attorney can do to change its own practices.

But the cases that are referred to the county attorney from police departments are beyond the direct control of the county attorney, which is why the ability to build partnerships and coalitions to change the entire criminal justice system is necessary.

It’s why being an excellent attorney with a lot of experience in the criminal system is not sufficient to make a difference. You have to have the ability to get people who disagree with you on board with change, or find places where you can agree and work together to make the system fair.

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

No. And it’s important for people to be aware that we do have a state constitutional protection for access to abortion services

Roe v. Wade is a federal Supreme Court decision that says that under the U.S. Constitution, women have a right to privacy, and that privacy includes the right to make decisions about abortion without coercion from the government.

We have a similar state Supreme Court decision called Doe v. Gomez, which not only provides for state constitutional protection for access to abortion, but requires the state to fund access to abortion services for low-income women. As long as that protection is in place, access to abortion services in Minnesota will be legal.

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?

Data shows that the number one deterrent for crime is the belief that you will be caught and have some consequence. So what I would do is focus on working directly with law enforcement to investigate cases and try to bring prosecution of violent crime up.

That doesn’t mean we need longer sentences–that doesn’t make a difference to stop crime. It doesn’t mean that we should throw people in prison for the rest of their lives. It means that there has to be a consequence that is proportional and leaves open the opportunity for people to rehabilitate and start a different life when they have paid their debt.

I’ve already been helping to persuade the state to provide additional patrol resources and the state is also working to bring suburban police resources, not to patrol the streets necessarily in Minneapolis, but to help provide investigation backup and for the state to provide additional investigation backup. 

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

When I first launched my campaign, I proposed an independent police accountability unit within the county attorney’s office. Prosecutors who work every day with police officers on prosecuting crime have a hard time being objective in making decisions about charging officers they work with. Having an independent unit within the office where those attorneys are not working day-to-day with police officers is a better way to do it.

When it comes to charging manslaughter or murder against a police officer, we need a process in place for external review of those decisions. That may include referral to another county attorney, a panel of prosecutors who look at cases, or the [Minnesota] Attorney General’s Office. We need a process that we vet with the community ahead of time, so that when an officer-involved shooting is up for potential criminal charge, we have a procedure in place that people have agreed to and can be followed. 

There’s a lot of discretion and with the level of distrust of our criminal justice system, people think that every decision is made for political purposes. A process is important because it allows people to buy in ahead of time and then keep decision makers accountable for following it afterwards.

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

Lying under oath in the past is a good indication that evidence presented by a police officer may not be sufficient to charge an individual. We need to understand which officers have that history of lying under oath, presenting false information, or falsifying evidence.

In any particular case involving such an officer, there should be a second level of review of the evidence that officer is presenting to ensure its integrity. That is something that the police accountability unit should be charged with doing in the county attorney’s office. It doesn’t mean you don’t charge every case with evidence presented by that officer, but it has to go through an extra layer of scrutiny first. 

Then I would try to work in partnership with supervisors and leaders in the Minneapolis Police Department to understand who those officers are–what their record is–and try to find a way forward to have people with a good record presenting the evidence. That also means that the prosecutor has to work with the police department to make sure that the highest standards are met for ethics.

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...