Senator Amy Klobuchar swept into office in 2007 as a former tough prosecutor, boasting of how she had reduced crime in the most populous county in Minnesota. But as protests over George Floyd’s death in police custody bring chaos and violence to Minneapolis, her record as prosecutor there is facing renewed scrutiny as she prepares to be vetted as a leading vice-presidential contender.
With a police force in Minneapolis that has long faced accusations of racism and complaints of abuse, Ms. Klobuchar declined to bring charges against multiple police officers who were involved in shootings during her seven-year tenure. Instead she often opted to send cases to a grand jury, a common practice at the time but one that some law enforcement experts say favors police officers.
On Friday, Ms. Klobuchar said that grand juries were used “in every jurisdiction across our state,” and that she now regretted those decisions.
“I think that was wrong now,” she said in an interview on MSNBC. “I think it would have been much better if I took the responsibility and looked at the cases and made the decision myself.”
Ms. Klobuchar called for the first time for there to be “charges” in the George Floyd case; minutes later, Derrick Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than seven minutes as he complained he could not breathe, was arrested.
Democrats acknowledge that the situation in Minneapolis is a highly fluid and unsettled one, and the political implications of the violence and civil unrest there cannot be foreseen with any clarity. It is too soon to say with certainty that the events of this week will weigh heavily on Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s choice of running mate or affect Ms. Klobuchar’s chances of becoming his vice-presidential nominee.
But with Mr. Floyd’s death rekindling the painful national conversation about race, Ms. Klobuchar’s tenure as prosecutor could become a significant liability for Ms. Klobuchar in the vice-presidential selection process.
On Friday, Ms. Klobuchar brushed off questions about whether she should withdraw her name from consideration, saying it was “Joe Biden’s decision,” while vigorously defending her record as a prosecutor, pointing to downward trends in African-American incarceration rates.
She also decried reports that she had a role in declining to bring charges against Mr. Chauvin in a previous case in 2006 as a “lie.”
In October 2006, Mr. Chauvin was one of six officers involved in the shooting of a man who had stabbed multiple people before turning on the police. Ms. Klobuchar, weeks away from being elected to the Senate, was still the prosecutor, but the case wasn’t heard until after she took the oath of office in Washington.
“Senator Klobuchar’s last day in the office here was December 31, 2006, and she had no involvement in the prosecution of this case at all,” said Lacey Severins, a spokeswoman for the Hennepin County prosecutor’s office, which encompasses Minneapolis.
Although she had no role in reviewing Mr. Chauvin’s case in 2006, Ms. Klobuchar’s name was trending online Thursday, with many quick to tie that decision to her long record as a prosecutor that critics viewed as overly friendly to police officers. The searing emotions surrounding Mr. Floyd’s death have reopened old wounds in her relationship with some national and local community activists in Minneapolis.
During her own presidential campaign, Ms. Klobuchar faced continued protests, as well as some calls to drop out of the race from local black leaders in Minneapolis, after news reports found numerous faults in the prosecution of a black teenager named Myon Burrell while Ms. Klobuchar was the prosecutor. Mr. Burrell had been charged in the murder of an 11-year-old girl and was convicted, but maintained his innocence, and one of Mr. Burrell’s co-defendents had said he was in fact the gunman responsible.
Two days before Super Tuesday in March, a rally in her home state was shut down by protesters demanding she do more to help free Mr. Burrell.
Ms. Klobuchar said while on the campaign trail that the case “should be reviewed,” but local civil rights leaders in Minneapolis wanted the senator to use the full power of her office to demand a new investigation.
This week, Ms. Klobuchar issued a statement after Mr. Floyd’s killing, calling for an “outside investigation” and saying that “those involved in this incident must be held accountable.” She was met with near immediate criticism from local and national activists for not mentioning Mr. Floyd’s name or saying that he had been killed by the police, and for not immediately calling for charges to be filed.
Behind the scenes, Ms. Klobuchar has been reaching out to local and national leaders in the black community since Mr. Floyd’s killing. She called the Rev. Al Sharpton; Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP; and Leslie Redmond, the president of the Minneapolis NAACP. She joined other Minnesota elected officials to send a letter to the local United States Attorney and district attorney urging a full investigation into Mr. Floyd’s death.
But still, some Democrats thought that Ms. Klobuchar, now one of the party’s leading national voices, should have been more publicly vocal in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death.
“I think that clearly how she behaves and conducts herself in her home state with the situation with the killing is going to be something everyone is going to watch,” Mr. Sharpton said in an interview. “I’d like to see her do more, I’d like to see her be more aggressive in calling for intervention here. When you have the mayor saying the people ought to be charged, it raises the bar on other elected officials who have not said that.”
On Friday, minutes before Mr. Chauvin was arrested, Ms. Klobuchar called for charges.
“There should be charges,” she said on MSNBC, adding that “This one has multiple video recordings. There’s the body cams, there’s the one we saw initially, and there’s the one that was revealed last night. That is right there in front of our eyes. So that I hope that we will see swift justice in this case.”
In the months since she dropped out of the presidential race and endorsed Mr. Biden, Ms. Klobuchar has taken steps to rectify some of her record.
On the Wednesday after Mr. Biden dominated Super Tuesday states, Ms. Klobuchar sent a letter from her Senate office to the district attorney’s office in Hennepin County, asking them to launch an independent review of Mr. Burrell’s case. She also met with Mr. Burrell’s family and local activists.
Ms. Klobuchar’s strengths remain compelling to some in the Biden campaign, who view her as an appealing choice for suburban voters, especially women, who are crucial to Mr. Biden’s electoral map. She also appeals to older voters who have shifted away from President Trump and toward Mr. Biden in recent months, according to public and private polling.
Mr. Biden himself regards her as a vital ally, an ideological fellow traveler and someone to whom he owes a debt of gratitude for her forceful endorsement before Super Tuesday. There is little doubt among allies that Mr. Biden sees Ms. Klobuchar as qualified for the vice presidency.
“She’s our best bet to get disaffected white, blue-collar Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016 back into the Democratic column,” said former Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, who also stressed that any of the other women under consideration would also bring benefits to the ticket. “She’d be the biggest help to Joe.”
But Biden allies and senior Democrats are fully aware of the opposition to Ms. Klobuchar that has built on the left, largely for reasons unrelated to her record as a prosecutor. She is also viewed skeptically by some black leaders who are hoping Mr. Biden will choose an African-American running mate. She attracted virtually no support from black voters in the Democratic presidential primaries.
Several women viewed as serious candidates for the vice presidency have extensive backgrounds in law enforcement, including Ms. Klobuchar; Senator Kamala Harris of California, who was a district attorney and state attorney general; and Representative Val Demings of Florida, who was the police chief in Orlando, Fla. Of those women, only Ms. Klobuchar is white.
Ms. Redmond, of the Minneapolis NAACP, had been one of the leading voices calling on Ms. Klobuchar to drop out of the Democratic primary because of her handling of Mr. Burrell’s case. She said the fact that Ms. Klobuchar reached out personally was a welcome surprise, but added that she and Ms. Klobuchar have “unfinished business.”
“One of the reasons why I fight so hard is because I’ve had to fight so many times on the front lines for lots of people that we couldn’t bring back, and here we are, yet again, another black man has been murdered,” Ms. Redmond said. “And we can’t bring back George Floyd. And that sickens me because he should be alive today.
“But we have to have an opportunity to right wrongs. So I commend Senator Klobuchar for reaching out so far, and I look forward to her helping us freeing Myon Burrell A.S.A.P, and we need to put our full force and energy into that.”
Alexander Burns contributed reporting.