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How a contentious debate over funding for Chauvin trial security became an afterthought at the Minnesota Legislature

Lawmakers have seemingly put mutual aid funding on the back burner, potentially indefinitely.

Fences shown in front of the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis.
Fences shown in front of the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

In late February and early March, the Legislature was convulsed by debate over whether Minnesota should pay for a large police deployment in the Twin Cities when the murder trial of Derek Chauvin concludes.

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Gov. Tim Walz
At the time, Gov. Tim Walz and his administration said the money was necessary to help Minneapolis and St. Paul shoulder the large cost of bringing cops in from around the state. But Republicans who control the state Senate and Democrats who control the state House were gridlocked over issues, like whether the money should be tied to new police reforms.

Lately, however, the debate has gone mostly quiet. Discussions around money for law enforcement mutual aid appear to have fizzled at the Capitol and become something of an afterthought, particularly among House Democrats.

As state Rep. Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul DFLer who chairs the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee, said in an interview last week: “I do think that with each passing day there seems to be less pressure to do this.”

A hotly debated proposal

In January, Walz initially proposed using $35 million from the state’s general fund to pay police departments around the state to send officers to the Twin Cities in an effort to tamp down any violence that arises separate from peaceful demonstrations.

Law enforcement said they were hesitant to provide backup for an extended period of time without a promise they would be reimbursed for expenses.

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Senate Republicans balked at the idea, saying Minneapolis should pay the tab considering the city council had cut the local police budget during the COVID-19 pandemic and didn’t follow Chief Medaria Arradondo’s request in past years to increase the number of officers on the force. The Senate narrowly passed a bill that would tap into Minneapolis’ share of local government aid, a state subsidy for basic government services, if the city didn’t pay any mutual aid expenses it had promised.

State Rep. Carlos Mariani
Later, however, the Republican-led Senate also passed a $20 million plan that was closer to Walz’s. Democrats objected to the Republican measure because it blocked local governments from using state money dedicated for disaster aid to repair public infrastructure damaged by fire in a riot.

But House DFLers also failed to pass Walz’s bill as several House members from the Twin Cities opposed new money for police during the Chauvin trial without significant new regulations on law enforcement, which Republicans have opposed. A $35 million bill the House voted down would have made the state’s police licensing board write new guidelines for how officers handle public assemblies and required an independent review of how police responded to a situation when cities request money for mutual aid. 

How a hot issue fizzled

While top lawmakers said they were still talking about a security fund, it’s been weeks since there has been any major movement on the issue. Last Tuesday, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, told reporters that Republicans no longer wanted to negotiate on the issue because Minneapolis and St. Paul received hefty sums of cash from the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package approved by Congress. “We would still consider it a priority to pass that funding but it doesn’t appear to have a realistic path forward at this point in time in light of the federal resources,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, responded by saying they had approved a $20 million plan, and House Republicans even attempted to force a vote on the bill later that day, though the effort failed. 

“The Speaker does not speak for the Senate Majority Caucus,” Gazelka said in a statement after Hortman’s comments. “The Senate passed two bills to support law enforcement for emergency needs.”

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While the Legislature is often divided over controversial issues, lawmakers typically keep negotiating in private even while debating the issue in public. After police killed George Floyd, the Legislature worked for months on a series of police reform measures that eventually passed in late July.

But the mutual aid fund seems to be on the back burner, potentially indefinitely. Even though Hortman said Republicans wouldn’t negotiate, she also told reporters that police say they have enough mutual aid agreements after all for what they call Operation Safety Net.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Mariani, the DFLer who leads the public safety committee, told MinnPost that if the law enforcement money has no “element of reform,” then it won’t happen. Especially, he said, since the environment in downtown Minneapolis where the trial is being held has been stable. Law enforcement have collaborated well to plan and won’t be caught off guard as they were in May of 2020, he said.

And Mariani said Walz has not been “pushing particularly hard” for the law enforcement money, also called the SAFE Act.

On Sunday, KSTP-TV aired an interview with Hortman, where the House Speaker again said “we have been assured that all the safety precautions that need to be put in place are in place, and Operation Safety Net is up and running strong.”

In a briefing with reporters Tuesday, John Harrington, Commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety, said he hopes lawmakers “will find the common ground” to pass a state-funded mutual aid account. He didn’t say the police who have agreed to help would bolt. But he did say that in lieu of any state cash, the cost of mutual aid support would fall on Minneapolis and St. Paul. 

Commissioner John Harrington
Commissioner John Harrington
Harrington said the Walz administration believes the security effort is a “community-wide problem” that shouldn’t be paid for entirely by the cities, and said it was “responsible” for state government to have a role in paying for mutual aid. (The state is paying for state police and national guard deployment.)

Minneapolis city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said in a statement Tuesday that money from the SAFE Act is needed to “ensure we can fulfill mutual aid agreements that we (are) liable for.”

The city is still waiting for federal guidance on how to use stimulus money, and McKenzie said they don’t know if the cash could be used for mutual aid accounts.

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“Additionally, the needs of the City far surpasses the funding provided through the (American Rescue Plan Act),” McKenzie said. “So even if those federal funds could be used towards mutual aid, it would mean smaller allocations to our residents and businesses for essential relief and recovery support.”

Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder said he didn’t know how many outside departments had mutual aid agreements with the city, and said that information would require a public records request.

Lawmakers are currently on a week-long break for Easter and Passover, and when they return Mariani said he’ll be focusing on putting together a package of bills to change the policing system tied to qualified immunity, police-worn body cameras and more. Other legislators will have to negotiate a two-year budget for the state.

As for mutual aid money? “My guess is it is going to sit there for a while,” Mariani said.