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Minnesota police licensing board adopts sweeping changes to stop extremists from becoming officers

The rule updates also feature changes to how officers are hired, and how the board can take action against officers’ licenses.

The Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board approved rule changes on Thursday that included a ban on officers associating with or promoting the views of extremist and hate groups.
The Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board approved rule changes on Thursday that included a ban on officers associating with or promoting the views of extremist and hate groups.
MinnPost photo by Mohamed Ibrahim

The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), which licenses the state’s law enforcement officers, approved rule changes on Thursday that included a ban on officers associating with or promoting the views of extremist and hate groups.

“Good work everybody,” said Mendota Heights Police Chief and chair of the board Kelly McCarthy, after the board voted unanimously to adopt the new rules. “This was four years in the making.”

The sweeping rule updates also featured changes to how officers are hired, and how the board can take action against officers’ licenses. 

The move by the licensing board comes after a renewed sense of urgency following the murder of George Floyd by a then-Minneapolis Police officer in 2020. And while many applaud the decision as long overdue, more potential changes appear to be on the horizon.

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The rule changes

Several state and local officials, along with activists and religious leaders, applauded the board’s efforts ahead of its approval of the draft rules in December. But a joint letter from the Minnesota Police and Peace Officer Association and Law Enforcement Labor Services expressed doubt about the board’s statutory authority to impose certain rules and the scope of the changes, as well as concerns about how the rule changes would affect local agencies’ ability to discipline their own officers.

Following the vote in December, the board convened on Thursday after administrative law judges issued an opinion last month mostly approving the changes.

Critics of the proposed rule change argued that the POST board doesn’t have the authority to limit the freedoms of speech and association of officers while off-duty. But the administration law judges disagreed, citing a 1995 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, in which the panel found the discipline of a Little Rock Police officer who wore blackface to a Halloween party did not violate the officer’s constitutional rights of free speech.

“Because police departments function as paramilitary organizations charged with maintaining public safety and order, they are given more latitude in their decisions regarding discipline and personnel regulations than an ordinary government employer,” the opinion reads.

But the judges called the proposed rule barring officers from associating with white supremacist groups too vague, recommending that the board establish a definition of hate or extremist groups. 

The definition would include groups that promote the use of threats, force, violence, or criminal activity against a local, state, or federal entity, or the officials of such an entity. Groups that deprive, or attempt to deprive, individuals of their civil rights under the Minnesota or United States Constitutions, or advocate for differences in the right to vote, speak, assemble, travel, or maintain citizenship based on a person’s perceived race, creed, religion, or any protected class as defined in Minnesota Statutes or federal law, would also be included. 

McCarthy said in an interview that the recommendation by the judges is not her preferred language because one of the goals of the change was to single out white supremacy groups. 

“The FBI has issued report after report saying right-wing extremists and white supremacy groups are actively trying to infiltrate law enforcement,” she said. “So we need to be honest about what we’re concerned about, and that is right wing extremism and white supremacy groups.”

But, she said, since all right-wing extremist groups are extremist groups by definition, she was fine with adopting the broadened recommendation. 

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“As long as we can address the behavior and the public can be assured that we are not going to allow any extremists in our ranks, I’m happy,” she said. 

Among the rule changes was to the hiring process, which McCarthy said the board looked at through an equity lens. The use of past offenses like shoplifting or marijuana possession, which disproportionately prevented low-income Minnesotans and people of color from becoming peace officers, was removed from the evaluation process.

The requirement to be a U.S. citizen to become an officer was also changed to only needing to be legal to work in the U.S. due to the citizenship application process taking so long to complete.

Another significant change, in an effort to increase accountability, was to now allow the POST board to take action against an officer’s license based solely on misconduct, whereas the board could previously only take action following a criminal conviction.

“There’s a lot of ground between bad behavior and a conviction,” she said. “So now with these rules, the POST board will be able to initiate investigations based on behavior and not just on criminal convictions, just like the lawyers boards can and, quite frankly, the Board of Cosmetology.”

The rules could take effect as early as this spring pending approval from the chief administrative law judge and Gov. Tim Walz, the latter of whom appoints all members of the board. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd by a then-police officer in 2020, the Legislature moved to provide more spots on the board for citizens to represent the public. 

Just the beginning

In addition to the vote by the POST board Thursday, more changes are potentially on the horizon. 

In the Legislature, Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten of St. Paul, vice chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, introduced a pair of bills that would broaden the scope of the board’s authority. 

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One would require law enforcement agencies to conduct criminal background checks on prospective officers, and allow those agencies to share what they find with the board. The second bill would direct local officials to cooperate with the board in their investigation of a peace officer by providing public private and confidential data related to the officer while granting immunity to those local officials who comply. 

For the POST Board, McCarthy said the changes made Thursday are only the beginning.

“This is just the first step — we’re doing all the rules, and this is just the first chunk of them,” she said. “We are looking at everything from reciprocity to testing, and as we move forward we’re going to look at what policies should be mandated and what policies that shouldn’t be mandated.

“There’s a lot of work ahead of us, but I think this was the biggest hurdle.”