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‘Something needs to change’: Walz responds to Chauvin verdict with call for more reforms

The DFL governor said true justice for George Floyd isn’t the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin. That will only come “through real systemic change to prevent this from ever happening again.” 

Gov. Tim Walz speaking after the verdicts in the trial of Derek Chauvin, on Tuesday.
Gov. Tim Walz speaking after the verdicts in the trial of Derek Chauvin, on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

Just hours after the guilty verdicts were read in the murder trial of a former Minneapolis police officer, Gov. Tim Walz said the jury’s decision in the case should be seen as a starting point rather than an ending one. 

“It’s an important step towards justice for Minnesota,” Walz said early Tuesday evening. “The trial’s over. But here in Minnesota, I want to be very clear. We know our work just begins. This is the floor — not the ceiling — of where we need to get to.”

The verdict on all three counts against Derek Chauvin in the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd came as a relief to offiicials who had prepared for more unrest. But Walz said he didn’t want that relief to take pressure on the Legislature. “I don’t see how you could be sitting in Minnesota today and not see that something needs to change. I would argue we took one step back from the ledge today, but we’ll be right back on it again if we don’t do this.”

Walz said true justice for George Floyd isn’t Tuesday’s conviction but “through real systemic change to prevent this from ever happening again.” 

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The DFL governor said those changes must also include Black residents and other people of color having the same level of economic and educational attainment that white residents enjoy in the state. 

Walz and DFL lawmakers have been pushing for additional legislation since a compromise package of police reforms was adopted last June. But none of the bills have been heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee this session, and no GOP votes have been cast for bills or amendments containing the proposed changes. 

The April 11 shooting of Daunte Wright by a Brooklyn Center police officer during a traffic stop has led to a new push by the DFL, including suggestions by some that the state budget not be adopted without further reforms.

In a statement Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka didn’t touch on whether the Legislature should take up further police accountability measures. But the East Gull Lake Republican said: “Every American is entitled to justice through the legal system.”

“Though no verdict will bring George Floyd back, I pray the Floyd family today is in some way comforted knowing the judicial system has provided justice,” Gazelka said. “Today we have been reminded the determination of guilt is best decided by a jury of peers reviewing the facts.”

Last week, Gazelka said that his GOP caucus would be willing to hold two sets of hearings before the session ended — one of police accountability and criminal justice and another on the civil unrest that occurred in Brooklyn Center after the death of Daunte Wright.

But Gazelka made no promises of legislative action, saying finishing the budget before the regular session adjourns on May 17 was his top priority. Republicans have also continued to tout the police accountability measures passed in 2020, saying the changes were substantial and significant. Those reforms included restrictions on the use of chokeholds and neck restraints and changed the arbitration system police use to contest discipline.

DFLers in the House have included a batch of reforms in stand-alone bills and within the public safety finance and policy omnibus spending bill. Among them are new regulations on crowd control and no-knock warrants, the removal of officers who affiliate with or support white supremacist groups or ideologies and ending police stops for minor vehicle infractions. But when these and other provisions have come to a vote in the House and Senate they have attracted no GOP support.

In an interview with MPR Tuesday morning, Gazelka said he was open to talking about changes to vehicle stops for minor offenses, sometimes called pretextual stops because they can be used to pull over a motorist in search for more serious offenses. “I’m going to be part of the solution. I am listening,” Gazelka told the radio network.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman said in a statement Tuesday evening that “our work is far from done.

“Minnesotans deserve safe communities and a fair justice system – no matter what they look like or where they live – and we need to continue to improve accountability in our criminal justice system,” the Brooklyn Park DFLer said.

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Walz Tuesday didn’t sound very sure that he could be successful in pushing for changes this session, though he spoke again about the message it could send to the United States if the only divided legislature in the country could agree on significant changes.

“The way democracy works is you put an incredible  amount of pressure on people to move in the direction of where the public wants,” Walz said, wondering how anyone in Legislature could still think “you should be killed for minor traffic violations.”

Walz added that the pandemic has put a strain on his relations with GOP lawmakers. “I’m not gonna pretend this is easy,” he said. “But if we act like this is too hard and this is not our moment … if we don’t make these changes we’ll be right back again with another trial, another trial, another trial; it will be relentless.

“I will convene the question. I will burn my political capital on this. I have tried to not bring the partisan side of this in. But if there are legislators who choose not to make these changes, I will use the platform that I have to let Minnesotans know who is holding up progress.”

Walz said he was not ready to demand police reforms be adopted before the state budget is approved. But such linkages are likely to be made privately. In the closing weeks of the session, action turns to conference committees — the panels of lawmakers from both parties and both houses who work out differences between the House and Senate omnibus budget bills. Those differences are numerous, starting with the bottom line: the current budget proposals spend significantly different amounts of money.

In 2019, Walz and legislative leaders Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman met in private to agree to the dollar amounts and then passed judgment on the pieces that filled out the hundreds of pages of legislation. It’s likely in that non-public process that agreements on whether DFL-favored public safety measures end up in the large bills, often in exchange for items Republicans want.

While the constitutional end of the regular session is May 17, the governor could convene a special session to finish the work after that date. Two years ago, lawmakers worked after the regular session, with a one-day special session where the various bills were approved.

The state fiscal year ends June 30 and without a new two-year budget by that evening, much of state government would have to shut down.