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Minnesota Senate Republicans agree to hold ‘fact-finding’ hearings on police reform measures

Republicans have been hesitant to consider new changes to policing standards after enacting a set of reforms following the death of George Floyd. But GOP lawmakers have also come under increasing pressure to consider additional DFL-backed measures in the wake of Daunte Wright’s killing.

A police officer standing guard outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department.
A police officer standing guard outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department.
REUTERS/Nick Pfosi

Gov. Tim Walz implored Republicans who control Minnesota’s Senate to hold hearings on police accountability legislation after former officer Kim Potter killed Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center on Sunday. 

On Tuesday afternoon, GOPers responded, announcing hearings aimed at “fact-finding” rather than approving any specific bills, said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. “I’m not promising that we’re going to do more reform, I’m promising to listen to see if something is warranted,” Gazelka told reporters.

Republicans have been hesitant to consider new changes to policing standards and regulations after enacting a set of reforms following the police killing of George Floyd last year. GOP lawmakers have touted those reforms, which include raising the bar on use of deadly force standards and restricting neck restraints and chokeholds, as substantial. They have also said some policing bills supported by majority House Democrats could be onerous for law enforcement or put officers at risk.

But Republicans have also come under increasing pressure to consider additional DFL-backed reforms in the wake of Wright’s killing. Body camera footage showed Potter, a 26-year veteran of the department, shooting Wright after shouting “taser, taser, taser” while holding an outstretched gun. She then said: “Oh shit, I just shot him.” Wright was pulled over for expired car tabs, according to police, who then tried to arrest him for a gross misdemeanor warrant.

On Tuesday, both Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon and Potter resigned from the department. In a letter, Potter said her departure was, “in the best interest of the community, the department, and my fellow officers.”

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At a press conference, Gazelka said that while some people viewed their 2020 police legislation as “not far enough,” others thought the measures went “too far.” He said Republicans were willing to hold hearings now at the urging of those calling for new police accountability laws in a tense “powder keg” environment in Minnesota.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
A handful of Democrats have threatened to try to hold up negotiations on the two-year budget lawmakers must pass this year amid a politically divided Legislature. The regular legislative session ends May 17, and lawmakers must pass a budget before June 30 or state government will shut down.

Gazelka said the main priority for Republicans at the Legislature was still enacting a budget. He said the hearings would take place in two committees related to public safety and transportation and focus on “hearing where are people at on these issues.”

He didn’t endorse any particular legislation and said he still had concerns with some Democratic bills. Republicans say police from other states have been wary of providing mutual aid in Minnesota, for instance, because of the state’s new use-of-deadly-force standard. “We want to start the process and honor the governor and the (House) Speaker,” Gazelka said. “This is meant to be a goodwill gesture to say look we think this is important too.”

Gazelka said Minnesotans don’t want to defund the police, but want “the bad apples picked out.” He said Wright’s killing was an “unjustifiable tragedy” but also said people should be “as respectful as possible” when pulled over to avoid confrontation.

DFLers have a lengthy list of police reform proposals, from enacting new regulations on crowd control and restricting no-knock warrants to banning officers from affiliating with or supporting white supremacist groups or ideologies.

Before the GOP news conference, a group of Black, People of Color and Indigenous lawmakers pushed again for new police accountability measures in a remote video call with reporters. State Rep. Cedrick Frazier, a New Hope DFLer who is vice chairman of the House’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee, said the Legislature’s bills last year were “watered down” by the GOP. He urged lawmakers to take another look at making use-of-force standards tougher and increasing oversight of the state’s police licensing board.

State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn
State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn
Frazier and Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, released a draft bill Tuesday that would limit when police can stop drivers for some vehicle infractions such as expired tabs, mirrored windows or a broken tail light. State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, a Roseville Democrat who chairs the House’s Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, said the measure would get a hearing in her committee Wednesday.

Frazier said any hearings in the GOP-controlled Senate were welcome and urged Republicans to pass legislation “that truly shows that Black Lives Matter.”

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Yet Democrats have not always been on the same page over police reform. Some more conservative DFLers have balked at tougher policing standards, and Walz on Tuesday described a heated conversation he had that morning with House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, over how he characterized the work of the Legislature on police reforms. Hortman, he said, was displeased with the governor lumping her DFL House caucus with the Senate GOP caucus.

“I’m gonna demand that the Legislature finally hold some hearings on some of these reforms that have passed in other states and proven to make a difference,” Walz said during a briefing Monday. There are issues that have agreement by police groups and community activists but “that will not happen if we don’t at least hold hearings on these things. If we don’t at least get ourselves into an uncomfortable position and do what this democracy is supposed to do and debate the hard things.”

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Gov. Tim Walz
According to Walz, Hortman said it was hurtful to her members — especially members of the People of Color and Indigenous caucus — who have been working to pass further police and criminal justice reform, and Walz noted that the House had passed “countless police reforms” after hearing emotional testimony from those affected by police shootings. 

He attributed his general condemnation of the Legislature because “I did not want to inflame partisan politics” but clarified Tuesday that his words were aimed at the Senate GOP majority.

Walz said he was hopeful after his call with Hortman and Gazelka that there would be an agreement that they all need to work together. While Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan were calling for hearings in the Senate, reporters at an event for the new FEMA vaccination site at the state fairgrounds informed the pair that Gazelka had just announced that there would be hearings.

“That’s fantastic. I’m glad he’s having them,” Flanagan said. “It was a good conversation.”

In a statement after the GOP press conference, Hortman was more circumspect: “Hearings can be pretty meaningless lip service or pretty meaningful pathways to action. We’ll see what kind they are. We need action.”

MinnPost reporter Peter Callaghan contributed additional reporting to this story.