Rep. Tony Cornish

Minnesota state Rep. Tony Cornish of Vernon Center watches a witness criticize his bill regulating police body cameras in May 10 committee hearings. (File photo)

Rep. Tony Cornish said he doesn’t regret writing a letter to the editor, published by the Star-Tribune on June 7, that blamed people’s actions for police using force.

Cornish, R-Vernon Center, whose district includes the majority of Waseca County, said that people need to be law-abiding in order to avoid physical force from police. “Don’t be a thug” began a list of six pieces of advice. It also suggested that people would avoid police use of force if they went home before 2 a.m. and didn’t talk back when police gave orders.

“If you think you are wrongfully treated, make the complaint later,” he wrote.

The letter was seen by the Minneapolis NAACP and some other civil rights groups as racist and supporting law enforcement brutality over constitutional rights, according to the Star Tribune. “Thug” is perceived as a reference to black men.

But Cornish, a retired conservation officer who also had stints as a police officer and sheriff’s deputy, said he’s simply defending law enforcement officers, who are wrongly blamed for the consequences of other people’s actions.

“I’ve waited for two years for somebody from the metro area, from those areas, to say something in support of police,” he said. “I haven’t seen any administrator stand up for them and these advocacy groups keep beating down police, so I said something in defense of them.”

He is responding to protests after Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man, was killed in a tussle with police Nov. 15, 2015. State and federal investigations concluded with no charges against the two police officers that confronted and shot and killed Clark.

The president of the Minneapolis NAACP said then that black residents are treated like “second-class citizens,” who don’t receive justice.

Cornish, chairman of the House’s Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee, averred that the NAACP president was bringing more attention to herself and the group Black Lives Matter, keeping “a false narrative going.”

“Even when cleared, advocacy groups wanted the cops fired even before the investigation was complete,” he said.

With criticism of racism or ignoring constitutional rights in some of his advice, he sees them grasping a straws.

“They brought up the 2 a.m. thing and it’s obvious when you read letter that I’m not talking about people working at 7-11 overnight,” he said. “Police don’t plan on going in and rousting out people who are working. And those walking home from work are a lot different from those standing on street corners and yelling and causing problems.”

He said his email and Facebook page are flooded with comments, 10 to 1 supportive of his statements.

“Law enforcement, naturally, is in huge support,” he said. “I get some criticism, mostly from the metro area and people from either these advocacy groups or social justice areas.”

In the letter, Cornish said poverty and lack of a job or education are no excuse. He and eight siblings didn’t get a college education, his grandfather spent time in prison and his father only completed eighth grade. “We didn’t use that as an excuse to turn to crime,” he wrote.

He explains that he pointed to violent crime, such as assault and murder, not shoplifting food.

Cornish admits there are “bad cops, bad lawyers, bad judges, bad priests,” he said. “Some will get charged, but I’m a believer in the justice system. A lot of people believe it’s rigged and a conspiracy, but I’m going to speak out and say we have the best criminal justice system in the world.”

There are cases where police officers and others in the criminal justice system overstep, but “thinking you’re having issues being mistreated is different from being proven to be mistreated,” Cornish said.

He understands that some may discount or take offense at his voice from outside the Twin Cities, which has higher minority populations.

“I agree that it probably ruffled feathers when someone from a white farming community in greater Minnesota spoke up, but I never meant for the lesson to specifically be given for blacks, Hispanics, Indians or whites. It’s non color-related.”

Reach Associate Editor Nancy Madsen at 507-931-8568 or follow her on @SPHnancy.​​

Nancy Madsen has written for newspapers in Watertown, N.Y., and Mankato, as well as for PolitiFact Virginia at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va. Nancy is a graduate of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., and Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.

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