Fueled by national anger over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Minnesota lawmakers came into a special session last week with a promise to enact big changes to law enforcement.
House Democrats had a wide slate of proposals while Senate Republicans had a more narrow agenda. But the parties still had a fair bit of common ground in the state’s divided Legislature.
Early Saturday morning, they walked away with nothing.
Senate Republicans adjourned the session, ending, at least temporarily, a debate that was often emotional, and sometimes rancorous, but one that failed to result in any police reform bills making it to the desk of Gov. Tim Walz despite some fruitful negotiations late Friday night.
The fallout was in part a result of genuine policy differences. Yet Republicans and Democrats also accused each other of being unwilling to bend in negotiations, perhaps with an eye toward the 2020 elections.
Debate over proposals
In the wake of the Floyd homicide, House DFLers, led by members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, announced a package of 21 measures they said would reform policing and the criminal justice system.
The legislation includes changes to use-of-force laws, a statewide ban on “warrior”-style training and adjustments to an arbitration system that allows officers to contest or overturn discipline or firings. The bills would also give people convicted of felonies the right to vote when they are on parole or probation, end cash bail for most people charged with misdemeanors, and transfer all prosecution power when police kill someone from county attorneys to the state Attorney General.
Senate Republicans had their own package of measures, including a ban on chokeholds and neck restraints, a requirement for officers to intervene when witnessing excessive force, mental health and autism training for officers and a provision to add two citizen members to the 15-person Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which is composed mainly of people from law enforcement.
Over the nine-day special session, there was passionate, personal, and testy debate over whether Republicans were listening to lawmakers of color and doing enough to change the policing system and combat systemic racism. There was also disagreement over whether the Democrats should agree to ban efforts to defund or dismantle the police.
Among those in attendance for debates and hearings were Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, who was shot to death by police in 2016, and Don Damond, fiance of Justine Damond, who was shot to death by police in 2017.
While the special session did not have any set deadlines, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said his chamber would adjourn Friday evening as a way to drive talks between the two parties.
On Thursday, Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said she was “insulted” by the Republican policing proposals, while Walz called the measures “weak sauce” and said he would not compromise on the POCI-drafted policing bills. Gazelka maintained he had offered serious proposals that represented significant police reform.
By Friday afternoon, neither side appeared to have budged. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the parties weren’t even meeting to discuss police accountability.
She pleaded for negotiations. It was an easy way out, Hortman said, for each party to state their values and forgo negotiating as a way to effectively take the issue to voters in 2020. Every state House and Senate seat will be up for election Nov. 3. “Republicans really want to do something on police reform and accountability, Democrats really want to do something on police reform and accountability,” Hortman told reporters. “We have to go to the table, and we have to negotiate.”
The night before, state Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, said there was Republican interest in passing far-reaching changes to laws governing policing. There were even bills from the POCI caucus beyond his comfort zone that he would have supported in the name of compromise and reconciliation. But he accused Democrats of purposely hanging onto proposals that no one in the GOP would support so they could paint Republicans as obstructionists who don’t care about people of color. “Then we go to an election and we see how it falls and then we start it all over again,” he said. “I often call it wash, rinse and repeat.”
Many Republicans said they could not endorse changes to the cash bail system or the measure to hand all cases involving police killings to the Attorney General. Late Friday, once negotiations began, Gazelka said those were two big sticking points in the House proposals the GOP could not back away from.
While Democrats say the AG’s office can be more impartial than county attorneys that regularly work with police they must investigate, Gazelka has said Democratic AG Keith Ellison is overly partisan. And while the state’s county attorney’s association voted to support transferring power to the AG, Republicans argued many rural county attorneys still opposed the idea.
Still, Gazelka told reporters Republicans had offered their own “giant” change to the arbitration system, which would send contested discipline cases to an administrative law judge rather than an arbitrator. Democrats had proposed creating a new roster of governor-appointed arbitrators, among other changes. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have some areas we say we’re not going to do,” Gazelka said. “But we did 11 provisions. I think every one of them (DFLers) agree with.”
Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, quickly retorted: “Minor changes can’t fix major problems.”
After midnight Friday, and after the power briefly went out at the Capitol, House DFLers agreed to drop the cash bail and officer prosecution measures — an offer Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, told reporters was a “good faith effort to move action that the people that Minnesota want and not just run away from this moment.”
But, he said, Republicans had still not moved enough. “The issue is a system that is not working for the people of Minnesota,” Mariani said.
Ultimately, despite the offers from both sides, negotiations dissolved and the Legislature adjourned.
Because Walz has to convene a special session every time he extends his peacetime emergency powers to combat COVID-19, lawmakers are expected to be back in session soon. Hortman argued staying in session now would have kept the pressure on lawmakers to act and closer to a deal. Republicans said they weren’t walking away completely and could keep talks going.
But said Gazelka: “We’re not days away from some of the requests that the House wanted. We are a session away.”
Peter Callaghan contributed to this report.