BOSTON (AP) — At a moment of record visibility and influence for Black attorneys in the United States, debates over race, criminal justice and democracy are increasingly at the center of the public conversation. Many of these Black litigators and law enforcement officials have made history, from the White House and the Supreme Court to the halls of Congress, but their perspectives and approaches to role aren't monolithic.
In wide-ranging interviews with The Associated Press, six sitting Black attorneys general discussed the challenges and opportunities of serving as the top law enforcement officer in their respective states. The interviews shed light on the interplay between public safety, criminal justice reform, the rule of law and other foundational questions facing a justice system under unprecedented strain and doubt from the American public.
Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the conversations:
Black attorneys general are at the forefront of criminal justice reform efforts
Black attorneys general have emerged as some of the most prominent advocates of reform to the criminal justice system. Many said their efforts are informed by personal and familial experiences with the system’s well-documented tendency to over-police and under-service communities of color.
Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell said the public expects that Black attorneys general "will take out bias that exists in criminal or civil prosecutions, that we will focus on communities of color and do it in such a way that recognizes those communities are often overpoliced and under-protected."
Campbell is the third Black woman elected as a state attorney general.
The attorneys general each noted that they use their prosecutorial discretion to advance reforms within the system, but there are limits to what such efforts can bring.
Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s attorney general, successfully prosecuted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd but says he has seen mixed progress on criminal justice reform since Chauvin’s conviction.
Ellison said he believes attorney general involvement is “probably” needed to advance reform at the state and local level.
“One of my big worries after the (George Floyd) case is that now people get to say, ’Well, you know, we convicted that guy. Move on,’” Ellison said. “If we’ve made a change, it’s been incremental.”
Black prosecutors have emerged as prominent figures on democracy issues
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, prosecution seeking accountability for alleged election subversion by Donald Trump and his allies has moved to the center of U.S. political discourse.
Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford, who litigated multiple cases over the integrity of his state’s elections, said he was shocked that “folks would be pushing back on the legitimacy of our elections and undermining our democracy.”
Trump has faced other legal woes, including a case brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose civil fraud case against The Trump Organization alleges that the firm misrepresented the valuations of his properties in official documents.
James said Trump uses attacks on the judicial system “as a microphone” for a political message that “plays upon individuals’ fears and lack of hope and their dissolution in how the system has failed them.”
Two Black prosecutors, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis in Georgia and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in New York, are prosecuting Trump on election interference issues raised in both of his presidential runs. Trump has lashed out at James, Bragg and Willis with language often evoking racist and stereotypical tropes, such as using terms like “animal” and “rabid.”
Black Democratic attorneys general learn from and collaborate with one another
The interviewed attorneys general confirmed that they frequently call, text and communicate with one another. While the group of six, who are all Democrats, say they are regularly in contact with all their peers across the country, as barrier breakers in many cases they also lean on each other for support. They also borrow tactics and policies from each other, several of the attorneys general said.
“We have a little group and we’re in regular communication. We boost each other up. We stick with each other and celebrate each other a lot,” Ellison said.
Ellison, for instance, knew Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown from their time together in Congress. He advised Brown, who was elected in 2022, on the merits of transitioning into the top law enforcement job and cited his achievements in the role since his 2018 election as an example.
Black attorneys general see greater public trust as essential to greater public safety
Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown’s top priority is to decrease racial disparities in the incarcerated population of his state through a multifaceted partnership with state and local police, as well as civic organizations, to reduce crime and disparate sentencing.
The key to more effective police and safety communities, each attorney general insisted, was greater trust and more accountability for bad actors both criminal and in law enforcement.
“You don’t solve crimes unless you have communities that trust that they can go to law enforcement,” said Kwame Raoul, attorney general of Illinois. “And people don’t trust that they can go to law enforcement if they think that law enforcement is engaging in unconstitutional policing.”
Black attorneys general see greater representation as secondary to racial justice goals
While greater representation has often been seen as integral to advancing racial justice, the attorneys general were mixed on its importance over the substance of their work. The spectrum underscores the balance between representation and policy impact on a system that has long resisted both.
“Being a Black man in a position of power during that particular time gave me a voice where I was able to get unanimity,” Ford said of his ability to advance criminal justice reform legislation in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd.
James described her many barrier-breaking accolades as “nothing more than historical footnote” and said she was only motivated by “sweet, sweet justice” for marginalized communities. Campbell, who began her career providing legal aid in her community, said that attorneys general “significant authority” and “divisiveness” at the federal level gave them an opportunity for greater impact while other politicians focus their energies elsewhere.
Matt Brown is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on social media.
The Associated Press’s coverage of race and democracy receives support from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.