Heading into the special session of the Minnesota Legislature, it was not clear exactly how Republicans who control the state Senate would approach the issue of policing reform after a Minneapolis officer killed George Floyd in south Minneapolis.
Six days into that special session, the GOP agenda has now emerged. A slate of five bills approved by the Senate on Tuesday includes a ban on most chokeholds and neck restraints, as well as a requirement for law enforcement to report use-of-force data to the state.
Republicans, who have preached slower deliberation and signalled resistance to sweeping change, described the bills as an important first step in rethinking policing — and sparking broader future debate — during a special session that is now expected to only last one week.
“Today, we’re not going to resolve decades of issues in the city of Minneapolis or in the state of Minnesota, or, sad to say, we’re not going to eradicate racism by simple legislation,” said state Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. “But we are continuing what seems to be a never ending discussion on how to treat our fellow citizen with respect and dignity as we try to protect them with our law enforcement.”
The measures, however, set the GOP up for a clash with majority House Democrats and DFL Gov. Tim Walz, who argue the Legislature should not adjourn without further addressing law enforcement training, deadly force standards and other criminal justice measures they say will meaningfully address systemic racism.
Republicans ‘laying a foundation’ for further action
After the Senate GOP unveiled their policing bills Friday, lawmakers held a committee hearing Tuesday before approving them that evening on the Senate floor.
Beyond the use-of-force data and neck restraint ban, Republicans want to extend an existing $6 million per year appropriation that pays for law enforcement training, which was set to expire in 2022. They also want to require the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board to rewrite policy on use of deadly force and establish a duty to intervene when officers see another officer using unjustified force that departments around the state would be required to adopt.
The GOP bills would also strengthen counseling programs in an effort to improve mental health among officers and require background checks of potential police employees who aren’t sworn officers.
After Floyd was killed, Republican leaders cautioned against sweeping changes to policing, but they also said they were open to some reforms. On Tuesday, Limmer and other GOPers outlined their justification for the approach.
Much responsibility for change lies with the city of Minneapolis, by way of collective bargaining negotiations and other means, Limmer said. While the state can and will step in on some issues, Limmer said he would prefer to defer to local communities instead of an “over-reliance on lawmaking to cure problems.”
He also said policing was not a top priority during this year’s regular legislative session, which was dominated by response to the COVID-19 pandemic, so Republicans were “playing a little bit of catch up on the police reform or police accountability issue” compared to DFLers who have long pushed for greater focus on the topic.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, an Alexandria Republican and retired Douglas County sheriff, said he feared making the job of police “even tougher” through legislation passed shortly after a police killing that he worries has not been fully vetted.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Republicans would oppose DFL efforts to transfer all prosecutions in cases where police kill someone to the state Attorney General.
While Democrats say the AG would be more independent than county attorneys that currently prosecute police in departments they normally collaborate with, Gazelka said he disliked that the current AG, Democrat Keith Ellison, is overly partisan. The GOP leader also said the party would continue to oppose efforts to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies who are still on probation or other supervision and would not support any attempt to dismantle police departments, though DFL state lawmakers have not made that a priority.
And while DFLers want to ban “warrior”-style police training programs, which some research shows may produce officers with more favorable attitudes toward excessive force, Limmer said he opposed the idea because law enforcement has to deal with armed and dangerous people, including drug cartels and terrorists. Local police and local government officials should decide on their own if the training style is right for them, he said.
Still, Limmer said the GOP-led bills were a strong start to an extended conversation around policing, race and criminal justice, not “one quick blast of legislation and we dust our hands off thinking: ‘there, it’s done.’ ”
“In looking at this, my intention was to not nibble at the edges but start laying a foundation for further discussion,” Limmer said. Gazelka said much of the legislation was modeled after proposals from lawmakers in the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, which has led the DFL effort on the issue.
DFL calls for the Legislature to go further
Those same POCI lawmakers, however, did not applaud the Republican bills. Instead, they criticized the Senate for not considering farther-reaching measures — like a stricter ban on neck restraints and chokeholds — advanced by the House in a series of hearings over the last week.
In a heated debate on the Senate floor that stretched late into the evening, Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, said the Republican measures were introduced without first consulting with senators in the POCI caucus. Then the GOP ignored their input and passed bills over demands from the POCI caucus for other new policies, Torres Ray said.
After Limmer said Democrats had not done enough to reach out, Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, responded by saying he and his colleagues in the POCI caucus should have been automatically included in decision making, and had been “disrespected in the highest form.”
“If people are a little offended here today, if they feel like the Senate is broken and we’re not as collegial as we should be, and that we’re passionate, that this group of legislators here my allies and the People of Color and Indigenous caucus are finally saying, ‘You know what, we’re tired,’” Hayden continued. “We’re exhausted.”
The GOP did amend their training bill with suggestions from the DFL to include a focus on crisis intervention, mental health and autism training, as well as add two non-police members to the POST Board, which is currently made up of 15 members, the majority of whom are members of law enforcement groups. The measure passed the Senate 65-0.
“We’re all imperfect; we sometimes write somewhat imperfect legislation,” Limmer said. “But we’re doing our best in a very short period of time.”
Still, in a statement earlier in the day, Rep. Rena Moran, a St. Paul DFLer who co-chairs the POCI caucus, said Black Minnesotans have for generations “been expected to wait patiently for equity and justice.”
“Real criminal justice reforms and accountability for police violence is just one example of needing to wait entirely too long,” she said. “We aren’t prepared to accept arbitrary deadlines or lines in the sand from Republicans when it comes to this issue.”
That deadline is one set by Gazelka, who has promised the Senate will adjourn from special session on Friday though nothing in law requires it. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, the Republican leader said most special sessions are only a day long, and he preferred to set a deadline in part to force legislative deal-making.
Walz said Republicans were right to include “low-hanging fruit” in their policing legislation, but argued the GOP is not bringing “the fundamental change the community is asking us for.”
So what happens if Republicans adjourn and leave before meeting DFL demands? Walz said it was too early to answer hypotheticals, but said he was frustrated at the prospect of the GOP voting for just their five bills. “We could bring them back Saturday (into a special session) and then they could let go, and I could bring them back Sunday,” Walz said.
In an attempt to break that stalemate, Justin Terrell, executive director of the state Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, tried to sway Republicans Tuesday during Limmer’s hearing to support a larger set of policies meant to address racial and criminal justice.
The Senate “tends to be very thoughtful and thorough when considering legislation and moving at the speed you’ve moved this week is commendable,” Terrell said.
But, he added, George Floyd’s killing comes after a long history of “sins” like redlining, the construction of I-94 through the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, and racial covenants that he urged lawmakers to account for now. “Every single system in the state of Minnesota is failing Black folks,” Terrell said.