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The Legislature just passed a police reform bill. What it does — and doesn’t do — to reshape law enforcement in Minnesota

Even as lawmakers celebrated the bill’s passage, a debate broke out over whether the Legislature should have done more to reform policing in Minnesota after the killing of George Floyd. 

The measures were passed in the early morning hours following lengthy closed-door negotiations between House Democrats and Senate Republicans.
The measures were passed in the early morning hours following lengthy closed-door negotiations between House Democrats and Senate Republicans.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Nearly two months after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, the Minnesota Legislature approved a bill Tuesday to restrict police use of chokeholds and neck restraints, ban departments from offering “warrior”-style officer training and change a state arbitration process that officers use to contest discipline.

State Rep. Carlos Mariani
The measures, passed in the early morning hours following lengthy closed-door negotiations between House Democrats and Senate Republicans, were hailed by supporters as a step toward curbing police killings and other violence that disproportionately affects Black Minnesotans and people of color.

“It creates a modern accountability framework of laws that will help to end the type of police brutality that killed George Floyd in May of this year,” Rep. Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul DFLer who chairs the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division, said in a speech during floor debate.

Even as lawmakers celebrated new changes to the policing system — the one thing the Legislature managed to accomplish during this special session — a debate broke out over whether they should have done more to reshape law enforcement.

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Two plans become one

After the Floyd homicide, House Democrats proposed expansive legislation that included bans on chokeholds, neck restraints and “warrior”-style officer training, as well as measures to give the Attorney General, not county attorneys, the primary authority to charge officers who kill people. The proposal also would have ended cash bail for most people charged with misdemeanors, altered use-of-force laws, gave the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board — the state’s police licensing board — more power to strip officer licenses and created citizen oversight councils to watchdog police departments.

Senate Republicans countered with a more narrow bill centered on banning chokeholds, requiring 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 POST Board.

After trading offers during a June special session, the sides edged closer together but could not find agreement. Then, on Monday, following weeks of private talks, House and Senate leaders announced they had reached a tentative agreement. 

What’s in the bill

The final bill has more than two-dozen sections and draws from elements of the earlier Democratic and Republican proposals. 

It bans police from using neck restraints and chokeholds — except as deadly force — and prohibits departments from offering controversial “warrior”-style training and the POST Board from recognizing it as a proper education course. 

It also establishes an independent unit of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to investigate when police kill people or are accused of sexual misconduct. The independent unit was recommended by a state task force earlier this year to reduce conflict of interest concerns.

The bill allows police departments to offer incentives for officers to live within city or county jurisdictional limits, a measure aimed at relaxing a ban on residency requirements from 1999 that was authored by Rich Stanek, a former state representative and Hennepin County Sheriff.

The Legislature voted to add two citizen members to the 15-member POST Board, which is made up mostly of law enforcement, and to create a new citizen council to advise the board on police policy. Lawmakers also ordered the POST Board to write new model policies that require officers to intervene if they see improper use of force by their colleagues. Police departments in the state will have until December 15 to align their rules with the new regulations.

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Lawmakers also approved mandatory training for officers to learn best practices when dealing with people who have autism and will require some mental health and crisis intervention training. The package includes new resources to help law enforcement deal with stress and trauma of the job.

Notably, the legislation changes an arbitration system that critics say allows too many officers to overturn discipline and firings. Under the current system, a union and an employer are given a roster of independent arbitrators and can eliminate the arbitrators they don’t agree with on a grievance case. Now, those arbitrators will be randomly assigned to cases, so neither union nor employer can wield a veto on who oversees a case. The arbitrators also must undergo six hours of cultural competency, implicit bias and racism training. The changes are limited to cases involving law enforcement, and don’t apply to other public employees.

Does it do enough?

Top Republican and Democratic leaders hailed the legislation as a marker of significant change to policing laws and compromise hard negotiated between two parties that began with fundamentally different views of how the state should respond to Floyd’s killing.

State Sen. Warren Limmer
State Sen. Warren Limmer
Still, several lawmakers said more needed to be done to alter policing in the state. Sen. Warren Limmer, a Republican a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, called the bill “a good first step in effecting responsible policing in the state of Minnesota.” And some Republicans complained that the new additions to the POST Board don’t explicitly require representation from Greater Minnesota.

Others, primarily Democrats, had stronger criticism of the deal. Sen. Jeff Hayden, a Minneapolis DFLer who represents the district where police killed Floyd, said thousands of people took to the streets to demand “fundamental” change, and criticized the bill as lacking teeth to punish police. “We DFLers fought for weeks for robust police accountability measures and transformative criminal justice on this bill, and we think that this bill falls short of that,” Hayden said. 

Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, a Minneapolis DFLer who voted no on the legislation, said: “We know that this bill is not actually the bill that communities of color want.”

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Negotiated in secret

Hayden and others also objected to the secrecy of negotiations and late release of the final bill, which was given to lawmakers around 9 p.m. Monday and released to the public more than an hour later. The bill was passed by the House around midnight and the Senate around 2 a.m. Tuesday.

The swift movement was in sharp contrast to a debate over the issue in June that was done largely in public. During that first special session that followed the Floyd homicide, lawmakers held hearings, conducted on video by Zoom, on their competing police reform measures, and some public testimony was taken. Legislators also had intense televised debates on the House and Senate floors and exchanged public offers before failing to close a deal.

Yet in early July, Mariani told MinnPost that top lawmakers had opted to meet behind the scenes while other legislators were holding talks in small groups with law enforcement to hash out specific issues. Private talks continued until Monday night. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Democrats and Republicans exchanged roughly 14 offers between July 6 and this weekend.

The final product approved by lawmakers Tuesday included provisions that were not part of any prior proposal, but the details of those back-and-forth offers were not divulged. And though a tentative deal was announced early Monday, even a rough outline of the legislative package was not disclosed until 10 p.m. (Legislative leaders said they were working to finalize the bill language.)

By the time the legislation reached the House floor, it was around 11 p.m., and few lawmakers spoke on the bill — for or against — even though the vote was not unanimous, and the Legislature often has lengthy debates on significant policy changes. Lawmakers also had no deadline to meet — special sessions can go as long as they wish.

When the Senate finally began its floor debate just before 1 a.m., Sen. Kari Dziedzic, a Minneapolis DFLer, said lawmakers were still trying to understand the bill and were given too little time to analyze it. She questioned Limmer about negotiations and asked for clarification on basic contents of the legislation. For instance, she asked if police could already offer incentives to officers to live within city or county bounds. (Minneapolis has explored this in the past.)

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“It would have been nice to have a hearing to actually learn more about this, to give the public the idea to absorb it, to see what is in it and to have a discussion on it,” Dziedzic said. “That’s just my comment — that I think that having a transparent open process that allows as many people to the table and as many people to raise their concerns and questions is good.”

Hayden said hearings on DFL proposals could have yielded more conversation on policing legislation. “Instead we got a closed-door deal in the middle of the night with no public input,” he said.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Limmer countered by saying the GOP did hold one lengthy hearing on their first proposal: “We tried to accommodate the public as best we could,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said the Legislature left out provisions that needed to “be vetted in a hearing in a regular session where you can have a lot more voices.”

“That was something we all wanted,” he said. “But we sensed the urgency of doing something.”

The bill passed the House 102-29 and the Senate 60-7. Gazelka said the legislation was a triumph. “We looked at so many issues and had a dialogue back and forth, and frankly, members, that was good government,” he said. “So it’s late, but members, I’m proud of this bill.”

What didn’t get done this session

The success of passing a police accountability bill also underscored all that lawmakers still have yet to accomplish. The divided Legislature failed again to pass a $1.35 billion bonding bill for state and local construction projects; failed again to pass a $99 million tax cut mostly helping farmers and small businesses; and failed again to pass a $58 million supplemental budget.

They’ll try again if — or more likely when — Walz again extends the peacetime state of emergency that he first called on March 13 to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. That will happen around August 12, one day after Minnesota’s primary election.

All this despite the fact that the hardest deal to reach was likely the policing bill. The financial bills had been agreed to in time for Monday’s reconvening, with the House and Senate majorities agreeing on both spending levels and the details.

But because the state constitution requires a 60 percent vote to sell most bonds, passage of the bill required the votes of some minority House Republicans. That never happened, and the reason had less to do with the bonding bill — though Republicans had some objections to that as well — and more to do with a GOP request that there be movement to rein in Walz’s emergency powers.

While there were some talks among Walz and legislative leaders on that front, no agreement was reached. And when the House DFL brought a combined bonding and tax cut bill to a vote after midnight Tuesday, it failed to get the 60 percent vote needed.  No vote was taken on the small spending bill, and the House adjourned at 1:22 a.m. while the Senate was still debating the policing bill.