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Thanks? How the Legislature’s police reform bill gives Minnesota cities a power they may already have

Some hailed the policing legislation for significantly changing law enforcement in Minnesota. But when it comes to the question of residency incentives, lawmakers may not have changed anything at all.

The Minnesota Legislature voted on Tuesday to allow cities and counties to offer incentives for police to live within jurisdictional bounds.
The Minnesota Legislature voted on Tuesday to allow cities and counties to offer incentives for police to live within jurisdictional bounds.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

After police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, Democrats in the Legislature renewed calls to lift a state ban on residency requirements for police, which currently prevents cities and counties in Minnesota from making officers live where they work.

House DFLers argued that officers are less likely to use excessive force on their neighbors, though Senate Republicans said a residency requirement can hurt recruitment and subject officers to public backlash in the communities they police.

Gov. Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Gov. Tim Walz
In the end, lawmakers compromised. In a broad set of policing reforms approved Tuesday and signed by Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday morning, the Legislature voted to allow cities and counties to offer incentives for police to live within jurisdictional bounds. While many in the Legislature hailed the package of legislation as creating significant change in law enforcement, others have questioned how much the police bill will actually alter the status quo.

And when it comes to the question of residency incentives, lawmakers may not have changed much — if anything at all.

Incentives explored in the past

State law has not explicitly authorized local governments to offer incentives, though it did not appear to prevent it either.

To that end, Minneapolis officials believe the city could already offer residency incentives, which are meant to entice police into their communities. 

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In 2017, the Minneapolis City Council directed staff to explore incentives for public safety employees. At the time, according to the Star Tribune, then-Council Member Jacob Frey said “there is room to provide incentives” under state law. “Collectively, we’ve been talking about this for a while,” Frey said. “It’s high time that we do something.”

While the city never approved any incentives for police, Minneapolis spokesman Casper Hill said they still maintain they have had authority to do so.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey
St. Paul has considered the idea as well. In 2015, the city’s council passed a resolution that directed staff to study residency incentives for police officers. “All I recall from the time was you definitely can’t require it,” said Council Member Chris Tolbert, who co-authored the resolution. “And so what I think what we were exploring was can you incentivize it.”

Ultimately, it was more a political hurdle, not necessarily a legal one, that stopped the push for incentives. Chris Coleman, who was mayor at the time, vetoed the resolution. In a letter to the council, he said where officers live “should remain a choice.”

“I have concerns about incentivizing one group of City employees over another in this regard,” Coleman wrote. “What’s more, if the goal of this measure is — in part — to ensure a continued focus on diversifying our police department, then I think a physical address makes less of a difference than life experience and background.”

In an interview Wednesday, Coleman said there may have been legal hurdles, but either way he preferred other methods of trying to get police to live in St. Paul, and viewed a focus on where officers live as a “simple and wrong” solution to a complex problem. “Whether somebody lives in Roseville or Como Park is not going to change the underlying issue of whether police are policing equitably in communities of color,” he said.

But Coleman and Tolbert also mentioned the possibility of offering preference “points” in the hiring process to St. Paul residents — similar to a state law that allows employers to favor veterans

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Officials in Duluth and Rochester told MinnPost they don’t currently offer incentives and have not pursued them.

During a Senate floor debate on Tuesday, Sen. Kari Dziedzic, a Minneapolis DFLer who preferred to lift the ban on residency requirements, questioned whether the incentive legislation constitutes a reform at all. She said lawmakers could have learned more about the value and legality of the incentives if they had held a public hearing on the bill — which was passed around 2 a.m. after being disclosed to the public just hours before.

State Sen. Kari Dziedzic
State Sen. Kari Dziedzic
For one, Dziedzic said Wednesday that cities may not have any money to offer financial incentives to police officers during the COVID-19 pandemic, diminishing the likelihood of their use. But she also asked on the Senate floor Tuesday: “Is this something that (Minneapolis) could do already?”

Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who helped craft the compromise deal, answered: “We just couldn’t seem to come to a clear understanding of a forced residency so we opted for this.”

When asked if cities could already adopt residency incentives, Patricia Beety, general counsel for the League of Minnesota Cities, said they have not explicitly been authorized in law. 

Yet Beety also said cities can offer benefits to employees as long as there is a “public purpose” for the cost and “specific or implied authority” in statute or a city’s charter. Do residency incentives qualify? The League said that question must be judged in part on the type of benefit a city might try to offer.

Clearing up a murky debate

The residency incentive was not the only measure approved by lawmakers to draw criticism. Lawmakers heralded a ban on most use of chokeholds and neck restraints — though many police departments prohibited them already. The state will now require officers to intervene when they see a colleague using improper force, though the vast majority of more than a dozen police departments interviewed by MinnPost earlier this year said they already had such a policy.

And while the Legislature blocked police departments from offering “warrior”-style training, unions could still provide the courses and officers could independently seek them out. 

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Speaking to reporters Tuesday, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, did not address residency incentives. But she said the legislation makes chokehold restrictions “universal policy” and makes a duty to intervene for officers witnessing improper force “absolutely clear in law.” Other measures, like central aggregation of data on police use of force, have the possibility of being “transformational,” Hortman said.

State Sen. Warren Limmer
State Sen. Warren Limmer
“I think what we passed is significant,” she said. “It will change things.”

Ultimately, the new policing laws remove any doubt over the power of cities and counties to offer residency incentives.

Limmer, on the Senate Floor, said top lawmakers hoped to “encourage” cities to look at the idea and wanted to ensure “that we don’t hinder them in any way in state law from creating some kind of incentive.”

In St. Paul, Tolbert said the issue hasn’t come before the council recently, but after the new law, he may explore incentives again. “I think it’s something we should look at, as I thought back then,” he said. “Mayor Coleman’s justification for (vetoing) it is true, we want life experience, we want the best possible officers. But I think being a St. Paul citizen as well as an officer adds to that life experience in the community.”