Updated: 10:53 a.m.
Mike Elliott was in the middle of it all, as he usually is these days. It was April 12, the night after a police officer in his city killed a 20-year-old unarmed Black man during a traffic stop, and Elliott — the 37-year-old mayor of Brooklyn Center, Minn., — stood among protesters outside the Police Department. Wearing a suit and helmet as he spoke to the crowd, Elliott sympathized with demonstrators and assured them he'd work hard to avoid another tragedy.
“The reason I'm here tonight with y’all is to tell y’all that we are going to get to the bottom of this,” he said. “We are going to make sure that there is justice, that this officer is held accountable.”
Elected mayor of the first-ring suburb of Brooklyn Center in 2018, Elliott now finds himself thrust into the national debate on police brutality and racism after the shooting of Daunte Wright.
Before the shooting, Elliott had the public presence you'd expect from a part-time mayor of a small suburb. Then suddenly, he was everywhere, taking steps that weren’t universally popular, but ones that he says will move his city toward the justice and accountability he promised the crowd at the police station.
He condemned the shooting immediately and recommended that the city manager and police chief be fired. He then continued to criticize heavy policing of protests in the days following the killing.
His actions were celebrated by some and lambasted by others, and he’s become the face of his city's reckoning.
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Elliott is the first Black mayor of Brooklyn Center, the most diverse city in Minnesota. He’s a Liberian immigrant who came to the United States when he was 11. When he was elected, Elliott said he wanted to be a mayor to work on issues his community cares about.
In an interview with MPR News host Angela Davis at the time, Elliott talked about his plans for the city. His focus was hyperlocal — from water quality to economic development.
“We gotta bring in some nice sit-down restaurants for our residents,” he said. “We also have to make sure that we're improving and updating and diversifying our housing stock.”
But after Wright’s killing, Elliott was pulled into the center of a national story. He publicly called for the firing of the police officer who pulled the trigger. His critics said the officer, Kim Potter, deserved due process.
Through a spokesperson for the city, Elliott declined an interview request for this story.
Some who know Elliott say he’s a leader who’s listening to the concerns of his constituents at a time when many in the community don’t want to hear platitudes about waiting out an investigation into the police shooting.
“From a community standpoint, wanting justice for your loved ones, for your community member, the leadership that supported or influenced those activities, it's favorable,” said Denise Butler, an organizer with African Career, Education and Resources, Inc. who works with communities in Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park.
Though she’s generally supported Elliott’s response to the shooting, Butler found the firing of City Manager Curt Boganey confounding. She said it wasn’t a transparent process, and Boganey’s removal could hurt progress moving forward.
“Curt was in a strong position of leadership as a city manager,” she said, “according to how their city charter was up until that decision was passed by council to give the mayor control over the police.”
The five-member City Council on which Elliott has one vote decided to remove Boganey. To get rid of the police chief, they had to fire the city manager.
At a City Council meeting, council member Marquita Butler said police Chief Tim Gannon had not been receptive to community concerns in the past.
“The chief, in my opinion, has not conducted himself in a way that as a leader I approve of,” she said. “Throughout the whole time, he has been defensive, and he, in my opinion, has been anti-community.”
Brooklyn Center is a Minnesota city of about 30,000 people, and city officials work part time. And yet Elliott is on the hot seat.
“Unfortunately, that's the job of a mayor in America, isn't it? said Alex Hindin, an old college friend of Elliott’s from their days at Hamline University. “[You have] to deal with it when your police shoots someone.
“I'm sorry that a friend of mine — and that somebody who wants to do the right thing and somebody who is doing the right thing — is in such a terrible position to be responsible for this mess.”
Correction (April 20, 2021): A previous version of this story misspelled the name of council member Marquita Butler. It has been updated.