When riots broke out in Minneapolis and St. Paul after police killed George Floyd, local departments were overwhelmed. Though Gov. Tim Walz eventually brought in large national guard and state forces, extensive fire and property damage had already swept through the cities.
Walz now wants to avoid the same result during and after the March 8 trial of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin by coordinating a massive response ahead of time. Chauvin, who faces second-degree murder charges, knelt on Floyd’s neck as Floyd said he couldn’t breathe.
The governor released a key part of his security plan for Chauvin’s trial last week: a $35 million fund to reimburse police and sheriff’s departments who help out metro cops and state responders. The idea is to entice outside help for increased security by making sure costs like overtime and lodging don’t fall on police helping in Minneapolis. Walz asked the Legislature to approve the money by Monday, Feb. 8.
John Harrington, commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety, told reporters Wednesday that the proposal, for what they call the “SAFE” account, was borne out of conversations with police chiefs and sheriffs around the state who asked, “how they would be made whole if they came to help?”
The plan has already faced opposition from Republicans in the Legislature who argue it would make state taxpayers responsible for backstopping a smaller Minneapolis police budget. The GOP proposed its own measure Thursday to withhold government aid from Minneapolis to pay for any reimbursements. Law enforcement has also raised concerns they would be greeted as hostile interlopers by city residents and local government.
Meanwhile, Democrats hope to make state police licensing officials write new policy standards for crowd control and take other measures to tamp down worries that law enforcement will use excessive force on protesters.
Here’s what we know so far about Walz’s plan and how it’s being received:
State law enforcement says the state is short on help, and the SAFE account would help
Harrington told reporters on Wednesday that Minnesota has been preparing its response to Chauvin’s trial for months. Harrington said he talked on Wednesday morning with the FBI and to a federal terrorism task force about possible civil unrest or even domestic terrorism. He has also briefed more than 200 law enforcement departments across the state on a new command structure and plans to prevent crime and disorder.
Three months ago, Harrington said many Minnesota agencies told him their mayors weren’t interested in sending police to help in the Twin Cities because they didn’t have the money or because they didn’t believe they “had a role in this.”
On Monday, Harrington, the public safety commissioner, told a House panel that police groups have told him “over and over” that if the city is burning, or in crisis, “they will come.”
But Harrington said the state wants “proactive mutual aid,” or a response that aims to increase police numbers to prevent damage and looting. Other departments have started to agree to help. Harrington said at one point DPS still needed to recruit “hundreds and hundreds of cops” for trial security. “Last week we were at under 100 cops that we were still trying to fill the vacancies. Every day we tick off another group of officers who are being dedicated to this effort.”
Harrington said he was “very confident” they could get all the police they need for their plans in time. But he said part of the reason he was confident was because of the $35 million proposal from the governor to offer financial help.
During the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, there was government reimbursement money set aside, said Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, and a Super Bowl committee paid police when the NFL championship game came to Minneapolis. But Potts, who led the Bloomington Police Department for more than a decade, said those were exceptions. Standard mutual aid agreements with cities don’t include reimbursements in his experience, though he said some departments have asked Minneapolis to pay costs and haven’t gotten money.
Under Walz’s plan, when a mayor or the governor declares an emergency, the state can pay out staffing costs and other expenses that could be budget-breaking for a city or county sending police to help others. Harrington described it as a “vital insurance policy.”
“A lot of agencies came to assist in Minneapolis either at my request or the request of others,” State Patrol Chief Col. Matt Langer said in a House hearing Monday. “After they came, when that call for help came out, they got back to their communities, and have realized that there’s not a streamlined or solidified mechanism to reimburse them for their expenses.”
The local government requesting help would be reimbursed for 75 percent of those outside costs, while the law enforcement agency sent to offer aid would get 100 percent reimbursement. Langer said the state wanted local governments to have a 25 percent match so they can’t rely solely on outside help and total state reimbursement and must stay involved in public safety planning.
Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo endorsed Walz’s plan in a letter to House lawmakers, writing his department will need mutual aid support to ensure the trial won’t be disrupted and to assure other law enforcement that their costs will be reimbursed if they help. “The inclusion of $35 million in funding is important to ensure local governments can feel confident that if the need should arise, and all other financial avenues have been exhausted, funding will be available,” Arradondo wrote.
Police groups are on board with the reimbursement fund. But they also said members are concerned about ‘the continued demonization of law enforcement’
Three organizations representing Minnesota police chiefs, sheriffs and frontline officers, also said they supported the governor’s measure.
Still, in a letter to Minnesota House lawmakers, the groups said a $35 million account wouldn’t persuade every department. Response for mutual aid “will not be as robust as the public may expect,” says a letter signed by organization leaders. That’s because “our members’ concern is due to the continued demonization of law enforcement officers by certain public officials at various levels of government,” the letter says.
House Republicans said in a news conference Wednesday they were open to Walz’s proposal in theory but also said money alone wouldn’t solve the problem of convincing other departments to come help in Minneapolis. Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, said lawmakers polled several police departments that responded to May riots and said many were more concerned about “anti-police sentiment” than about reimbursement worries.
Potts said in an interview that some departments are worried helping out isn’t worth the risk of lawsuits or other repercussions of responding to a situation that many fear will become chaotic or dangerous and will draw worldwide scrutiny. Some protection to mitigate potential legal costs would also alleviate police worries, he said. “We’re not really trying to be anti-Minneapolis,” Potts said. “Quite the opposite.”
He also said it’s important for Minneapolis to communicate support for the security strategy around Chauvin’s trial.
Harrington, the public safety commissioner, told the House panel Monday the three main barriers to getting proactive help have been liability concerns, a consistent way to get reimbursed for mutual aid costs, and “political rhetoric out there.”
“It’s aid that many of them have said to me no longer feels very mutual,” Harrington said during a hearing of the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Finance and Policy Committee. “When you’re coming from Greater Minnesota and the far northern parts of Cook (County) and you’re coming to help Minneapolis out, it’s hard for them to envision how Minneapolis is ever going to end up in Cook in a mutual aid situation.”
Senate Republicans say they’ll have their own plan that won’t ‘bail out’ Minneapolis
Republican lawmakers had other objections to Walz’s plan. While the proposal is moving ahead in the DFL-controlled House, the GOP has a Senate majority. Republican Sen. Paul Gazelka of East Gull Lake, the Senate’s majority leader, described the measure as a bailout for a Minneapolis council that has cut the police budget.
House GOPers noted the city wants to hire hundreds of officers but hasn’t yet, and Republicans have long been rankled by the council turning down past requests from Arradondo to hire more police.
Gazelka said Thursday the city had cut more than a hundred officers. Councilmembers initially proposed reducing the police force to 750 officers by 2022, but the latest budget did not cut any officers and kept a target level of 888. The department does have roughly 200 fewer officers on the street than at this point in 2019 because of departures, leave for issues such as PTSD and attrition.
Still, Republicans released an outline of their own plan on Thursday that would withhold Local Government Aid from a city like Minneapolis that does not reimburse other police departments for mutual aid. LGA, a program where the state shares revenue with cities, would be tapped to pay unreimbursed mutual aid costs.
Gazelka told reporters Minneapolis hadn’t reimbursed police departments who came to help and said: “Minneapolis needs to make sure that they take care of their bill.”
“Minneapolis should be expected to have adequate police,” Gazelka said. “I don’t think that’s asking too much.”
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said Thursday afternoon on Twitter that local governments don’t usually bill others for mutual aid during emergencies like the May riots and that his office is aware of “one small finalized invoice of a few thousand dollars” sent to the city during 2020. Frey said Minneapolis asked for clarification on a second bill, this one substantial, from another city seeking “overhead and administrative costs” but Minneapolis received no reply.
House Democrats support Walz’s plan, but they also want new policies for crowd control
While police have concerns about anti-police sentiment, Democrats also have concerns about how police handle protests, crowd control and riots. Law enforcement was often criticized last summer for using chemical sprays, rubber bullets and other weapons that officials and protesters said was excessive.
Minneapolis settled a lawsuit in January with one woman who suffered an eye injury after an officer shot a projectile at her on May 29, the Star Tribune reported. There have been multiple other lawsuits tied to injuries over that week filed by journalists and other protesters and bystanders.
House DFLers amended Walz’s proposal to make the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) develop model policies over the next year for responding to crowds and require every law enforcement agency in the state adopt similar guidelines and adhere to them when responding as mutual aid. The policies would have to be created with input from the state’s legislative councils of color, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, activist groups and police organizations like the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.
While that policy is being developed, Democrats would also require officers to follow their own guidelines on handling crowd control or else risk licensing sanctions. The measures would ensure police accountability and protect first amendment rights, said state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the public safety committee. “This goes to the essence of who we are, I would argue, as a free people and what we should expect of all of our public agents,” Mariani said during the Monday hearing.
House GOPers said the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association said the model policy plan should be debated separately from the mutual aid account and voted against the idea in a committee, saying it makes Walz’s plan less likely to pass the GOP-controlled Senate.