Something terrible happened on Dec. 5, 2020, in the Mesabi Iron Range town of Mountain Iron.
St. Louis County sheriff’s deputies responded to a report of a shoplifter at a store along State Highway 169. It didn’t take long for them to get there. The Sheriff’s Department headquarters is practically across the road. An hour later a 19-year-old man who fled on foot would be shot dead in the cold, barren woods on the edge of town.
Highway 169 is the big cross-Range freeway that long ago bypassed Mountain Iron’s rusting downtown, much as it had in my mother’s hometown of Keewatin 25 miles down the road.
In 1958, years before the freeway came in, my grandfather Marvin Johnson returned home to the Iron Range from service in the U.S. Air Force. With a new wife and daughter in tow, he needed a job. Accustomed to wearing a uniform he found work as a cop on the tiny police force in his hometown of Keewatin, population 1,807 and falling.
Keewatin’s the kind of small town where no one locks their doors, or it was then. It helped that no one had anything worth stealing. Grandpa knew everyone. And he got to know conversational phrases in the immigrant languages of the Mesabi Iron Range. After all, most people over 50 then were born in another country.
Na pots domov meant “on my way home,” which a Slovenian friend’s mother taught him. After a couple years of family life, a Finnish man up town told Gramps he was getting a kaljamaha, or a “beer belly.” He’d pick up the phrases, store them with the Norwegian he knew from his father and the German from his mother’s family. Language would become the way he related to the people he was charged with protecting. Decades later, he taught these phrases to me.
Grandpa’s nickname was “Two-Gun.” As a kid I thought it had to do with a dramatic shootout from his police days. Actually it was from childhood, when he would carry two potato guns instead of just one while he and his friends re-enacted World War II battles from the news.
Grandpa never fired his service weapon except for training. He would, however, bring a .22 rifle from home to kill rats at the dump during slow night shifts. His standard police equipment included a blackjack, a small leather pouch filled with lead on a tight rope. He said he used that once on a rowdy drunk.
In fact, he gave me that same blackjack when I was 10, much to the chagrin of my mother. “He’ll hit his sister with it,” she protested. “No he won’t,” replied Grandpa. I agreed.
A few days later I hit my sister with it. It’s remarkable how good it felt, the combination of form and function. She was fine. “I wasn’t trying to hurt her,” I complained. (Mother confiscated the club, which I never saw again).
To me, growing up on Grandpa’s stories, police work seemed no different than the ministry of the Catholic priest who lived in the rectory down the street. It was mostly about talking to people. Hearing them. Helping them solve their problems.
Which brings us back to Mountain Iron and the deadly events of Dec. 5, 2020.
Eric Killelea of the Mesabi Tribune reported that the shoplifting suspect, Estavon Dominick Elioff, 19, from the neighboring town of Virginia, Minnesota, fled into a nearby wooded area. At some point within an hour of searching, officers were told that the suspect matched the description of someone involved in a drive-by shooting the previous day. Deputies dispatched a K-9 dog into the woods.
The dog found Elioff. Officers reported a scuffle that took place outside the view of any witnesses or dashboard cameras. St. Louis County sheriff’s deputies do not wear body cameras. Initially the deputies used tasers on Elioff. Eventually, however, deputies Ryan Smith and Matt Tomsich fired their service weapons, killing Elioff
The sheriff’s department reported finding a knife at the scene, though whether Elioff brandished it as a weapon is not yet known. (It is common to carry a pocket knife on the Iron Range.)
Additionally, authorities have yet to confirm whether or not Elioff was involved in the drive-by shooting of Dec. 4. A Bureau of Criminal Apprehension internal investigation is underway, which is standard procedure for incidents like this. Likewise, Smith and Tomsich are on administrative leave, again routine for a police shooting.
However, the two deputies declined an oral interview with the investigators, instead insisting through attorneys that they would prefer written interviews. And here we see an old familiar script start to take shape some 200 miles north of the Twin Cities metro area where many rural Minnesotans think such things aren’t supposed to happen.
Police officers are the only local officials given the awesome responsibility of making life or death decisions with a gun. They may shoot, so long as they have cause. But post-shooting investigations of cause are slow, secret, and rapidly losing public trust.
That’s because cause so often has to do with perception, a remarkable tool of the human brain that is both instant and chronically flawed. Our perception comes from visual cues, our past experiences, our culture, and what we are told. And that brings us to Elioff, the young man who lost his life on Dec. 5.
Elioff himself represents a twist in the narrative of police shootings. First, and certainly foremost to the organizer of a protest who picketed the nearby Sheriff’s Department headquarters on Dec. 28, he was a person of color who was shot for a petty crime. Seraphia Gravelle told the Mesabi Tribune that she sees parallels between the story of Elioff, who is Hispanic, and that of George Floyd, whose death last May launched a summer of unrest and national reckoning on racial and policing issues.
Elioff’s ethnic identity might have played a role in his being identified as the alleged shooter, a perception that likely cost him his life.
But this story is more complex than that. Elioff’s mother, a former Minnesota resident who lives in Washington State, is Hispanic. But his father’s side of the family has been on the Iron Range a long time. Elioff’s great-grandfather, Dominic Elioff, represented the Iron Range in the Minnesota House of Representatives in the early 1980s.
I’ve seen Estavon Elioff’s picture. Thin face. A wispy mustache. A serious look in some photos with a big, bright smile in others. He looked like a lot of young men on the Iron Range today. His ethnicity isn’t easy to guess. His family, like mine, looks a lot different than our ancestors, because our ancestors had children with all kinds of other people over four generations.
So this narrative isn’t entirely about race. It’s about the use of force. And this is perhaps the most salient concern, because racial discrimination is so often about the enforcement of power.
If a community polices itself, it trusts the authority of an appointed officer of the law. But if citizens see officers as invaders, and officers see citizens seen as combatants, police work becomes indistinguishable from military occupation.
Actually, that’s probably unfair to the military. Trained military personnel observe much more rigorous rules of engagement. The existence of nuanced training and consequences makes professional, disciplined soldiers.
So, the question really is this. Are we training soldiers, or are we training police officers? Do we know the difference? Do they?
My grandpa, Marv Johnson, left the police force in the early 1960s to take a job in the mines, doubling his pay. With six daughters in a small house he needed the money. Today, police unions have dramatically improved benefits and pay for officers, which was badly needed. But police officers do not report higher job satisfaction. In fact, quite the opposite.
Officers do not feel safe or respected in their communities. And, for reasons that have become clear, their communities — especially when populated by survivors of historical racism — do not feel safe or respected around law enforcement officers.
This self-fulfilling prophecy of armament, incursion, protest, and secrecy will repeat forever unless its momentum is — in real physical terms — arrested.
The case of Estavon Dominic Elioff — a troubled young man who should not be dead — reminds us that the complex, culturally defined notion of race is not the only reason we should reform policing.
Shoplifting and fleeing police officers is not, nor should it be, punishable by death. Officers are equipped with ever-improving arsenals of weaponry but not with the emotional capacity to avoid using them when they’re scared or uncertain.
Cops are human. The more we put them in inhuman situations, backed by an inhuman system, the less we should be surprised with inhuman results.
And this is true in all parts of America — rural, small town or urban — because this is a uniquely American problem.