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A Minnesota task force on policing recommended 28 reforms for deadly-force incidents. After George Floyd, will its report get a serious look?

Led by Attorney General Keith Ellison, the task force offered an extensive set of recommendations for how to prevent law enforcement from using deadly force on civilians — and how best to respond when police do kill people.

Police officers throwing canisters
Minneapolis police officers throwing canisters to break up protesters on Wednesday night.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

In late February, a state-led task force on policing released an extensive set of recommendations for how to prevent law enforcement from using deadly force on civilians and how best to respond when police do kill people.

It was the result of months of public hearings and closed-door negotiations between police groups, criminal justice advocates, state lawmakers and other Minnesota officials. Attorney General Keith Ellison and Department of Safety Commissioner John Harrington had convened the group to create a plan for change, because, as Harrington said at the time: “The time to discuss deadly-force incidents is not when one occurs.”

After George Floyd’s death, and video emerged of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck while he pleaded for air, Ellison and others are calling for that plan to be realized. And it’s getting renewed interest from state lawmakers, who are expected to begin a special legislative session in mid-June. 

“I urge us to really reflect upon the recommendations in this report,” Ellison told reporters on Wednesday. “Because at some moment, sadly, George Floyd will be laid to rest. At some moment the criminal and civil rights process will be concluded. But will we have made any real substantive changes or will we just be setting ourselves up for it to happen all over again?”

What’s included in the recommendations

Ellison and Harrington’s task force held four public hearings and several listening sessions throughout the state to get testimony. That included family members of people killed by police and law enforcement training experts.

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The group also met in private to hash out disagreements and come up with a final report. Several members of the task force say the end product reflects a compromise, not something created solely by Ellison or Gov. Tim Walz’s administration.

There are 28 recommendations and 33 “action steps” in the report for the state government, local police departments and an officer training board to carry out. One is to create an independent investigative unit within the Bureau of Criminal Investigation to investigate when officers use deadly force.

Attorney General Keith Ellison
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Attorney General Keith Ellison
The BCA already investigates deadly-force incidents to help county attorneys determine whether criminal charges are warranted. But Ron Davis, a consultant on the state report who led President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, said an extra layer of independence is justified because BCA agents work with police regularly on other criminal cases. “It may be tough to work with a guy two weeks on a homicide and then have to investigate them for using deadly force,” Davis said.

But there was no consensus on some controversial issues, only a recommendation to keep talking about them. For instance, the report asks for a review of state law that authorizes when officers can use deadly force. Interested parties should meet to hash out any changes “necessary to ensure there is a focus on the sanctity of life, as well as standards that require that the use-of-force be reasonable, necessary, and proportionate,” the report says.

It also says the Legislature should research the impact of body cameras by 2022, and if “evidence suggests they contribute to public safety and community trust, and provide value in deadly force encounters,” the Legislature should pay for them to be made available statewide.

Some of the key recommendations for police meant to prevent the use of deadly force is for law enforcement to adopt policies that “make sanctity of life a core organizational value,” require only reasonable and proportionate use of force and require officers to intervene when witnessing an unreasonable use of force. “Which means if you’re an officer you can’t stand around and say, ‘Well he did it, that wasn’t me,’ ” Ellison said.

Commissioner John Harrington
Commissioner John Harrington
While many connect those recommendations to the Floyd case, they also show the report’s limitations. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo was a member of the task force, and his department has implemented a sanctity of life policy and a requirement to intervene when another officer is using unreasonable force.

Arradondo used those policies to help justify firing four officers, three of which appeared to stand by when Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck.

On Thursday, Chanda Smith Baker, a task force member and senior vice president of community impact at the Minneapolis Foundation, praised Arradondo and his work with the group, saying he is operating within a policing system that has “long fractured its trust with our community” in a way that can’t be repaired quickly.

Firing the four officers in short order represented progress, she said. But Smith Baker and Davis said larger changes are needed to address systemic racism and policing. While Minneapolis may have a “duty to intervene” policy, Davis said, “clearly no one at the scene felt obliged to do so.”

Report could be focus of special session

Still, Ellison and others now say lawmakers should consider adopting policies in the report when they convene in June for a special session. Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, has already called for changes to law enforcement policy, at least in part modeled after the task force report. 

During the regular 2020 legislative session there were bills to alter police use-of-force statutes and other policies, though they did not gain much traction, sometimes facing concerns from law enforcement but also because focus was diverted to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which represents 99 percent of cops in the state, said lawmakers should stick to the report recommendation because it’s the result of nine months of negotiations. “In light of what happened on Monday it just shows we kind of have a playbook,” Peters said.

Peters added he believes the Republican-controlled Senate would not agree to bills that alter use-of-force statutes without agreement from police groups and others through negotiations. State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, an Alexandria Republican who served on the task force and was the Douglas County sheriff for 16 years, said the Legislature could look at funding more training in crisis intervention and interacting with people experiencing mental health issues. He warned against “knee-jerk” legislation to quickly make major changes to use-of-force or other policing statutes without deliberation, saying he worries some changes could make it harder for police “to do their job.”

On Friday, just before announcing the BCA had arrested Chauvin, Ellison and Harrington again asked the Legislature and others to start implementing their recommendations. Harrington said one set of recommendations on “community healing” stood out to him as particularly necessary. 

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It says the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board should develop a way to help law enforcement communicate more effectively and be more transparent with the public to build trust, and it says law enforcement should train officers “to be aware of the impact of current and historical racial trauma in communities.” It also recommends a new state office to mediate disputes and resolve conflicts between law enforcement and communities of color.

“The question that we asked (at the task force) and that I ask here with you is how does a community recover when its heart has been ripped out?” Harrington said.