Update: Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has announced Republicans who control the state Senate plan to hold hearings on police accountability measures.
When police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis last spring, the Minnesota Legislature negotiated for several months before passing a slate of changes to policing standards, such as banning “warrior”-style training and restricting neck restraints.
Ever since, Democrats who control the Minnesota House have been pushing additional plans to further reshape policing and criminal justice in the state, even as Republicans who control the state Senate have opposed many of those ideas.
In the wake of Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter shooting and killing 20-year-old Daunte Wright after a traffic stop,the two parties reacted by largely digging in on their long-held positions. As DFLers renewed calls for another round of police accountability measures. Republicans said their work in 2020 did address law enforcement issues in Minnesota — and stood by their opposition to additional reforms as onerous and potentially risky for police.
In light of the stalemate, some Democrats turned to tougher tactics, saying they would try to halt negotiations on a two-year budget — which lawmakers have to pass by late June to avoid a government shutdown — until the Senate GOP approves DFL bills aimed at police reform.
But most DFL leaders on Monday, including the House member who represents the district where Wright was killed, advocated another strategy: using public pressure to persuade Republicans into acting. As Gov. Tim Walz told reporters: “there’s proven remedies that can be put into place,” to stop or reduce police killings. “But that will never happen if we don’t at least hold hearings on these things.”
What the DFL is advocating
Last year, Republicans and Democrats used special sessions to debate police accountability measures before reaching an agreement, eventually voting to restrict police use of chokeholds and neck restraints; ban departments from offering “warrior”-style officer training; tweak the state arbitration system process officers use to contest discipline; and raise the legal threshold on when officers can use deadly force.
At the time, key lawmakers from both parties framed the legislation as a first step in a broader conversation about police reform.
This year, Democrats have advocated for a new collection of potential changes. One package of legislation advancing through the House’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee includes measures to allow the family of someone killed by police to view body camera footage within 48 hours, restrict no-knock warrants, ban officers from affiliating with or supporting white supremacist groups or ideologies and offer grant funds for innovative public safety pilot programs. The bill would also allow local governments to create a civilian oversight council that can investigate officer misconduct and impose discipline.
The legislation would also create a $6 million fund named after Philando Castile, a Black man who was killed by police in Falcon Heights in 2016, for training police in things like crisis intervention, de-escalation and cultural competency.
Much of the House public safety omnibus bill was opposed by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which represents rank-and-file police. In a letter, the organization said the measures would impose unfunded training mandates on police departments and require agencies to refer emergency calls to mental health crisis teams “when that is not feasible across the state.” The organization also argued lawmakers shouldn’t give subpoena power or discipline authority to civilian review boards.
The MPPOA also said making body camera footage available to family within 48 hours “does not recognize how investigations are conducted.” Typically, state investigators withhold body camera footage from the public while they’re still reviewing a case, in part to prevent footage from influencing witnesses, but individual police departments can choose to release the video to dispel rumors or unrest. Departments have more frequently chosen to release the video quickly in the last few years, said Matt Ehling, executive director of Public Record Media, a nonprofit that advocates for government transparency and better access to public records.
Brooklyn Center police released the video at a news conference Monday afternoon. The footage shows Potter shooting and killing Wright after pulling him over for expired car tabs, said Police Chief Tim Gannon, who also said officers tried to arrest Wright because he had a gross misdemeanor warrant. Gannon said he believes the officer who shot Wright intended to use her Taser on Wright, not her gun.
Another focus for House Democrats has been a bill to write new model policies regulating how police respond to protests. The use of tear gas and projectiles against demonstrators protesting police violence has been a source of frustration for many activists.
In the wake of Wright’s death Monday, Rep. Samantha Vang, a Democrat who represents Brooklyn Center, highlighted two other priorities: strengthening the oversight power of the state’s police licensing board and ending the statute of limitations for wrongful death civil lawsuits against police.
Walz on Monday suggested lawmakers could debate whether heavily armed police should be involved in traffic stops, and the ACLU of Minnesota in a statement called for an end to police “making traffic stops and performing custodial arrests for low-level infractions,” which the organization said “disproportionately target people of color, are dangerous, racist and unnecessary practices that don’t aid public safety, but instead result in predictable violence and death for Black men like Daunte Wright.”
Wright’s death “clearly shows that we need to continue the push for more police accountability measures and police reform so we can continue to rebuild trust with the community,” Vang said.
How Republicans have handled police accountability
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, haven’t taken up any of the DFL-backed police bills this year, and House Republicans recently objected to the omnibus public safety bill as an “anti-law enforcement agenda,” as Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, put it.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in February that crowd control regulations proposed by Democrats “ties the hands of law enforcement to respond appropriately to violence and riots to keep both themselves and their communities safe.”
Senate Republicans, who campaigned in 2020 on support for police and opposition to “defund” policies, have instead promoted a bill to toughen penalties for using deadly force against a police officer, and approved a measure to delay some training requirements passed in 2020 due to law enforcement concerns over being able to implement them during the pandemic. Republicans and some Democrats have also supported delaying changes to the new use-of-force standards after questions arose about the constitutionality of one part of it.
In a hearing of the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee last week, Republicans also rejected a measure banning cops from affiliating with white supremacist groups or promoting such ideology, saying it could be an unconstitutional limit on free speech and association even if they as lawmakers find white supremacists repugnant. (Democrats compared the bill to the Hatch Act, which restricts government employees from political campaigning.)
On Monday, before the body camera footage of Wright’s killing was released, Gazelka tweeted “The loss of life is always heart wrenching and I’m praying for all those impacted by the loss yesterday.”
“We need to gather all the facts before a judgment can be made after yesterday’s tragic events,” Gazelka said. “May God show us all how to heal in a way that reconciles our communities.”
Later in the day, Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, released a statement calling the bipartisan reforms passed in 2020 “monumental” and saying they “hold police officers accountable for the safety of every citizen.”
“These reforms are currently being implemented and police officers across the state are receiving additional training and support to that end,” Limmer said. “Not knowing the exact circumstances of the incident, I am supportive of a full investigation by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to determine what, if anything, could have prevented this accident from happening, or if there is cause for a case against the officers.”
MPPOA executive director Brian Peters on Monday released a statement saying the “tragic chain of events that resulted in the loss of life is weighing on all of us,” but “no conclusions should be made until the investigation is complete.”
“As the state’s largest association of public safety officials, we are dedicated to continued conversations at the state capitol on bettering community trust, policing practices and our important profession to keep communities safe,” the statement says.
Will DFL hold up budget talks?
Some Democrats on Monday said they would take new steps to try to force Republicans to pass some of their bills. Rep. Cedrick Frazier, a DFLer from New Hope and vice-chair of the House’s public safety committee, said on Twitter that his party should stop negotiations on a two-year budget until the Legislature approves new laws aimed at police accountability.
Democrats, particularly from the Twin Cities metro, have successfully stalled legislation before in the narrowly divided House while pushing for more reforms. A group of DFLers tanked a House vote on providing money to police departments around the state to respond to any civil unrest tied to the Chauvin trial because those lawmakers didn’t want to give police more money without stricter new regulations on crowd control and other accountability measures.
Though a few lawmakers echoed Frazier’s call — including DFL Rep. Sydney Jordan of Minneapolis, and Democratic Sens. Jen McEwen of Duluth and Omar Fateh, who represents the South Minneapolis district where Floyd was killed — Vang said the caucus she chairs representing people of color and Indigenous lawmakers hasn’t endorsed a halt on budget negotiations.
The state is facing multiple crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Vang said, that have not hit all members of the state equally and need to be addressed through the budget.
Even so, she said Frazier “is not wrong to emphasize the need to make sure we get something done with holding police accountable and continuing the work that we did last summer on building a police reform package to really shift and push the needle on building trust with the community.”
In a statement, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, a DFLer from Brooklyn Park, which is just north of Brooklyn Center, touted the use of force standards passed by the Legislature in 2020 and said “our caucus will work together to determine our next steps.”
So where do Democrats go from here? “I think the most powerful tool that we have right now is the community call for the Republicans to do something,” Vang said. “Because that’s really how we were able to pass bipartisan measures last summer with the push and help of the community with the world watching us.”