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Nobody at the Legislature has proposed defunding the police. So why is it such a big deal at the Capitol?

For weeks, Republicans at the Minnesota Legislature have said they won’t pass any bills that would abolish, defund or diminish police departments in Minnesota — even though DFL lawmakers say that’s not something they’ve ever proposed. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka posted on Twitter that while the GOP supports measures to ban chokeholds and implement de-escalation training, the party “won’t support any DFL ‘reforms’ that defund or dismantle the police.”
As Minnesota lawmakers negotiate police reform measures in the wake of a Minneapolis officer killing George Floyd last month, one controversial subject has come up time and again — defunding the police. 

For weeks, the GOP has warned it won’t pass any bills that would abolish, defund or diminish police departments because they say it would lead to more violence. 

But while a majority of the Minneapolis council has pledged to dismantle their police department and create a new public safety system to replace it, DFLers at the Legislature argue it’s not something they’ve ever asked for at the Capitol.

Nevertheless, the topic has risen to the forefront of public debate as lawmakers prepare for a second special session expected to begin on Monday. And it comes as Republicans seek to make defunding police a campaign issue across the country.

How ‘defund’ became a legislative issue

After police killed Floyd, Democrats, who hold a House majority, responded by proposing more than a dozen measures to change policing and criminal justice law in the state.

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Their package of legislation includes a prohibition on chokeholds, neck restraints and “warrior”-style officer training. The measures would also adjust an arbitration system that allows police to contest or overturn discipline or firings. Democrats also proposed giving the Attorney General, not county attorneys, the primary authority to charge officers who kill people, and ending cash bail for most people charged with misdemeanors.

Republicans, who control the state Senate, have pushed for a more narrow set of legislation. Their proposals include a ban on chokeholds, a requirement for police to intervene when they see another officer using excessive force, mental health and autism training for law enforcement and a provision to add two citizen members to the 15-person Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, the state’s police licensing board, which is composed mainly of people from law enforcement.

At the end of a nine-day June special session, House and Senate leaders failed to reach a deal even though each side made some concessions. In one letter to House Democrats, the GOP outlined its main sticking points. The party would not support restoring voting rights for felons who are out of prison but still under supervision, nor would they accept transferring authority to the AG to prosecute all police-involved deaths.

But the GOP offer sheet also had a third objection: Opposition to “anything that defunds or dismantles a police force.”

State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen
State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen
It’s a line Republicans have stuck with. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, posted on Twitter that while the GOP supports measures to ban chokeholds and implement de-escalation training, the party “won’t support any DFL ‘reforms’ that defund or dismantle the police.”

At a hearing Wednesday, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said efforts to disband police are leading to “little kids being shot” in Minneapolis. And in an interview Thursday, Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, said his party is “absolutely dedicated to not defunding or dismantling law enforcement anywhere in the state of Minnesota.”

Opposition to dismantling police has become a GOP campaign theme in Minnesota and around the country. The Trump campaign released an ad last week tying Joe Biden to the defund movement. (Biden has opposed efforts to disband or defund police.)

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Legislative Democrats characterize the attacks as a distraction from their actual plans. None of their bills are intended to dismantle or abolish police, party leaders say. The DFL measures even call for new state money for law enforcement training.

“It’s not based on truth, it’s just sensationalist,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul DFLer who chairs the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division.

Do DFLers want to defund police?

It’s true that no measure proposed by Democrats is explicitly meant to defund or abolish police, at least in the way many activists envision. 

State Rep. Carlos Mariani
State Rep. Carlos Mariani
Some of those same activists have even criticized DFL state lawmakers because they believe the House measures don’t go far enough to restrict or alter law enforcement. Arianna Nason, an organizer with MPD150, a group that has advocated for a police-free Minneapolis, said the DFL plans are simply a “reform bill” that is based not on “what do we need,” but “what can we win right now.”

Republicans, however, have stood by accusations that legislative DFLers want to defund police. Gazelka pointed to one measure supported by Democrats that would spend $15 million to create an Office of Community-Led Public Safety Coordination that by law would “promote and monitor alternatives to traditional policing models.” (Mariani said that office would focus on “community-based intervention,” such as social workers who could respond alongside police, or reliance on other groups like MAD DADS to help intervene in local communities in an effort to prevent crime.)

Limmer said the way DFL lawmakers talk about policing makes it seem as if they want to “weaken the authority of police officers.” And he said support for defunding the police within the party makes lawmakers guilty by association. “If they keep saying it, even on local levels, they have to own it,” Limmer said.

During the June special session, House Republicans tried to get Democrats to vote on legislation that would ban cities from dismantling police. But DFLers largely said it was up to cities to decide that question for themselves. 

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On Wednesday, Mariani said local officials and communities can choose how best to deliver public safety services and said small towns sometimes disband police departments in order to rely on county governments or other officials for policing.

Still, Mariani said defunding police is not something he supports. “It’s just bad politics,” he said. The idea is vague, he said, in that most people don’t quite understand what it really means, and it will cause some people to react with fear of what society would be like without cops. 

It also takes focus away from the issue of cops killing Black people, he said. “You throw out a concept like ‘defund’ and no one knows what the hell that means, and we’ve lost the conversation that should make a difference in the lives of Black men and women,” he said.

Progress toward a deal?

While the parties have continued to trade public barbs — Democrats accuse the GOP of ignoring lawmakers of color while trying to shift attention away from their proposals and toward the abolition movement and the toppling of statues — legislators have been meeting in private to try to hash out a compromise.

Limmer said most Republicans now support banning “warrior”-style training after more research on exactly what it entails. Critics say the courses make officers aggressive, paranoid and, some research suggests, more favorable toward excessive force. Defenders say it helps officers ward off attacks in the line of duty. There is also common political ground between House Democrats and Senate Republicans over changing the arbitration system.

State Sen. Warren Limmer
State Sen. Warren Limmer
Mariani said DFLers are open to compromise but need to pass at least one measure aimed at “big systems-changing work.” That could include a measure to give the POST Board more power to strip officer licenses, a measure to create powerful citizen oversight councils to watchdog police departments that employ 50 or more officers, or the proposal to create a new officer of “community-centered public safety work” that provides alternatives to traditional policing. Limmer said he is wary of plans he believes shift responsibility for police oversight from local officials, like city councils, to the state.

Gazelka and Gov. Tim Walz told reporters this week they are optimistic a deal can be reached. But obstacles remain. Democratic lawmakers from the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus held a press conference this week saying they were hesitant to compromise. And Limmer said he’d prefer to continue talks over the next five months on the complicated topic before returning for the 2021 regular legislative session. (That would come after the 2020 election determining control of the state House and Senate.)

Mariani said he hopes lawmakers strike an agreement soon. “The longer it goes without us doing that, the harder it’s going to get,” he said. “We’re obviously going to keep pounding on each other. You guys are pounding us on this defund issue … and we keep pounding on you for just not responding. And at some point, people’s feelings get bent out of shape and it makes it harder for us to talk.”

MinnPost Washington correspondent Gabe Schneider contributed to this report.