With its stark partisan split, the Minnesota Legislature rarely sees a bill with bipartisan sponsorship these days. Seeing bipartisan sponsorship of a bill that could be controversial is even rarer.
But there it is on a bill, Senate File 1197, that would make it a misdemeanor to publicize the home address of law enforcement personnel or their family members without consent. To be against the law, the dissemination of the information would have to pose “an imminent and serious threat to the official’s safety or the safety of an official’s family or household member; and the person making the information publicly available knows or reasonably should know of the imminent and serious threat.”
DFL Sen. Karla Bigham of Cottage Grove is the prime sponsor, along with Sen. Susan Kent, the Woodbury DFLer who is the leader of the Senate DFL caucus and Sen. Ron Latz, a DFLer from St. Louis Park who is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. Joining the trio of DFLers are the top-ranking Republicans on the committee: Chair Warren Limmer of Maple Grove and Vice Chair Mark Johnson of East Grand Forks.
“It isn’t a left or right thing,” Bigham said “A public servant, which a cop is, and their family deserve a right to privacy.”
The bill grew out of events in the state last spring and fall. The first was the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day, who was killed when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes during an arrest. Among the protests that resulted was one at the Hugo home of Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll. One of the participants was now-state Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St Paul, who at one point threatened to burn the town of Hugo.
Thompson apologized for his statements, but the protest, which included the beating of effigies of Kroll and his wife, continues to hold the attention of lawmakers.
Bigham said Floyd’s death was “tragic and unnecessary” and that protests were important and valid but some methods made her think there needs to be a conversation about “how we deal with difficult issues.” She said she thinks protesting at the homes of police officers is not productive and is something that shouldn’t be allowed.
“An officer’s job is to protect and preserve the community and if they are worried about demonstrators at their homes where their partners and spouses and partners are located takes away their focus on their job,” she said.
She said she’s also concerned about the safety of neighborhoods and communities where demonstrations take place.
Bigham said she is also concerned about post-election demonstrations at the homes of elected officials — part of the “Stop The Steal” campaign triggered by President Trump. But her bill does not extend to elected officials, only police officers. And the crime would be triggered only when dissemination of home addresses, directions to a home or photographs of a home “poses an imminent and serious threat to the officer’s safety or household member’s safety” and the person distributing the information “knows or reasonably should know of the imminent and serious threat.”
The ACLU of Minnesota does not have a position on the Senate bill. There is not yet a companion bill in the House.
There are other House bills that attempt to impose similar restrictions, all with Republican-only sponsorship. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has House File 302, which would make it a crime to make public personal information about a police officer or their family members. According to the bill, that information includes home addresses, home phone numbers, cell phone numbers, personal photographs, directions to a home or photographs of the officer’s home or vehicle. Similar to the Senate bill, it requires that the dissemination of the information pose an imminent threat.
Another House bill, House File 787, by Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, would create the crime of protesting in residential areas and would cover any protests at home unless the home is also a place of business.
Protests at the homes of legislators are the motivation for House File 1209, a DFL-sponsored bill led by Rep. Jamie Long of Minneapolis. It would allow candidates for office to shield their home addresses from public data “when the candidate has reasonable fear as to the safety of the candidate or the candidate’s family.”
Unlike the Senate effort, however, the House bills lack bipartisan support.
Johnson, the vice-chair of the Senate judiciary committee, said Bigham approached him and Limmer about the issue and asked for their support. Bills sponsored by minority DFLers have less chance of passage, or even getting a hearing, without support from the majority. He said they had been thinking about the problem and agreed to team up.
“The acts that have been portrayed on police have cast a dark shadow across policing,” he said. “How are you going to recruit police officers if they are fearing for their families, their children going to school in the morning or their spouse going off to work or being in the house? I don’t think that’s a partisan issue. It’s just common sense that those who are protecting us, that they feel safe and secure to do the work they need to do.”
“I applaud her for bringing it over to me and Sen. Limmer,” he said.
Latz was the chair of the judiciary committee when the DFL last held the Senate majority, in 2016, and has been the ranking DFL member since. “By definition, (police officers) are going to get into situations of conflict with community members, that’s the nature of the work they do,” he said. “To expose their homes and their families potentially to protests is troublesome to me. We’re politicians. We signed up to be public officials in the public eye. But I don’t think law enforcement needs to feel they’ve given up all their privacy just because they choose to do their job.”
Of the strange bedfellows on the sponsorship line, Latz said it shows that despite deep partisan divisions in politics — including “deeply held antagonisms across the aisle” — there are times where common ground can be found.
“I guess we’re not totally dysfunctional yet as a Legislature,” Latz said.
While Bigham’s bill has bipartisan sponsorship, the issue of support for the police was a centerpiece of many 2020 legislative campaigns, with GOP candidates and their allies campaigns accusing many DFL candidates — inaccurately in most cases — of supporting efforts to defund the police.
Bigham said last week that she doesn’t expect her bill will stop protests at the homes of law enforcement members, but it might reduce them. “Where there’s a will there’s a way to get information out,” she said of possible protests. “But it’s the intent.”
UPDATE: Civil rights attorney and former Minneapolis mayoral candidate Nekima Levy Armstrong, who took part in the Hugo protest, said this about SF 1197 (her comments were received by MinnPost after the story was posted): “It is clear that this bill is a backwards attempt to protect law enforcement officers like Bob Kroll, from having to face members of the public who choose to peacefully assemble outside of their homes. It is highly despicable that these legislators would take the time to draft a bill that would potentially criminalize peaceful protesters and stifle freedom of speech; yet have sat back silently for years and watched officers like Bob Kroll physically abuse Minneapolis residents, misuse their power and authority, and foment racial division. These legislators need to take that same energy and use it to protect the public, and particularly communities of color from violent and abusive police officers, instead of attempting to silence and stifle peaceful protests.”