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Why DFLers are pushing to have the state’s police board take on more reform measures

And why that strategy may have considerable limitations.

“We are committed to helping Minnesota get to a safe place one way or the other,” said state Rep. Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul DFLer who chairs the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Democrats at the Minnesota Legislature spent Monday airing frustrations that a compromise public safety bill reached with the Republican-led Senate didn’t include enough of their proposals to reshape policing.

In turn, a group of DFL state lawmakers in the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus (POCI) urged Gov. Tim Walz to take more executive actions on policing. The POCI caucus also outlined 30 proposals for the state’s police licensing board, such as changes to body camera disclosure laws. 

In the face of GOP opposition, Democrats have increasingly tried to sidestep the Legislature altogether, with the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Board (POST) a favorite venue for those efforts. Earlier this year, for instance, Walz asked the POST Board to ban officers from affiliating with white supremacists, and to implement new model policies for cops responding to protests.

On Monday, Walz announced he would direct the POST Board to create a public dashboard for data the organization collects, part of a push to increase police scrutiny and transparency. “We are committed to helping Minnesota get to a safe place one way or the other,” said state Rep. Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul DFLer who chairs the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee.

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But going around the Legislature has considerable limitations and, at least when it comes to POST, isn’t likely to carry the full DFL agenda. Not only is the board required to follow a lengthy rule-making process, its members are free to ignore the wishes of the governor and lawmakers.

A changing POST Board

Kelly McCarthy, who chairs the POST Board and is chief of the Mendota Heights Police Department, said the licensing board once had a smaller role in police oversight. It was focused primarily on hiring and basic licensure.

That has changed in recent years. McCarthy, who has been the board chair for two years, said the POST Board has taken a more “active” role in setting policing standards in Minnesota. “I think the expectations of the board have changed dramatically,” McCarthy said.

In 2020, lawmakers expanded the board from 15 members to 17, a move made after the killing of George Floyd. The board is made up of various police representatives, as well as people representing the higher education system and members of the general public. The two new board spots are for the public. The POST Board is also still working to address the results of a 2020 audit that found its “statutory and regulatory functions can be expanded to create more oversight and accountability.”

Kelly McCarthy
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Kelly McCarthy, who chairs the POST Board and is chief of the Mendota Heights Police Department, said the licensing board once had a smaller role in police oversight.
In February, Walz appointed seven people to the POST Board, including some who largely align with the governor on police reform issues. McCarthy said the board also recently hired four staff positions and has three more to fill.

In April, the POST Board did agree to seek changes to statewide standards for handling public assemblies and write a policy banning officers from adhering to white supremacist ideology or affiliating with white supremacist groups. “This is what a lot of the POCI caucus is asking for, they’re asking for civilian oversight of police agencies so we can have accountability,” Walz said Monday. “The POST Board, in the way it’s intended, is supposed to do that.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
Last week, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Republicans had agreed to write those two policies into state law. But she said that would not represent a true concession by the GOP, since the POST Board was on it anyway, and the compromise public safety bill released this weekend did not include either measure.

Top lawmakers did agree to beef up the POST Board’s data collection for the board’s effort to track misconduct by officers. The database is billed as an early warning system meant to catch bad cops.

Politicians pressure the POST Board to act

On Monday, Walz and lawmakers pressed the POST Board to go even further. 

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Gov. Tim Walz
The list of 30 proposals for the POST Board includes simple measures, such as requiring the agency to meet more often. But it also includes specific policies, including a measure to require police to give body camera footage of those killed by police to their families within 48 hours. 

Democrats have tried to get the Legislature to adopt such a law this year, but Republicans have not agreed to it. (Walz directed state-run law enforcement Monday to turn over footage of police killings by their officers within five days, but the new policy doesn’t apply to local departments.) State law currently says police chiefs and sheriffs can release video at their own discretion.

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Yet the POST Board has limitations as a work-around for legislative action. In order to mandate departments follow a new policy, the board must undergo a lengthy rule-making process that can include review by an administrative law judge. McCarthy, the board chair, said the white supremacist affiliation ban and the public assembly regulations, for instance, are roughly eight months away from being reality — if they make it through the process at all.

The board is also independent, meaning it isn’t required to take up everything Walz or legislators want. McCarthy said the POST Board could look at standardizing department rules on releasing body camera footage of police killings and is open to “anything and everything.” But, she said: “I don’t know that that’s necessarily a policy issue.”

Democrats have also called on the Legislature to limit traffic stops, such as ones for expired car tabs or a broken tail light. They haven’t asked the POST Board to take up the issue, but McCarthy said it still wouldn’t be the proper venue. “I think those are laws,” McCarthy said. “The police in and of themselves should not decide what laws we should enforce. If it was up to me and I got to pick and choose, there’s a whole lot of laws I wouldn’t enforce, but that wouldn’t be upholding my oath. So that really needs to be at the elected level.”

Similarly, Walz told reporters Monday he didn’t think he could order state troopers to limit traffic stops without changing state law.

Should the POST Board be involved?

Some in the GOP oppose the effort to implement a range of new policies through the POST Board. Sen. Warren Limmer, a Republican from Maple Grove who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, said local departments should have broad leeway to run their agencies as they, and their communities, see fit.

State Sen. Warren Limmer
State Sen. Warren Limmer
“A philosophic difference is, do we let local control govern the management of police departments and let city councils and mayors oversee the conduct of police officers or do we rely on a political board established with political appointees to do it?” Limmer told reporters. “We do that on a variety of different subjects. But in this area I think we would rather, from our caucus perspective, have it governed by local communities regarding local police departments.”

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On Monday, Democratic lawmakers and advocates for police reform characterized the Legislature’s deal on police reform as meager.

Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, said at a press conference Walz needed to “show some testicular fortitude” and was giving Black lawmakers and their constituents “lip service” rather than leadership in cutting a deal with Senate Republicans. (He later walked back the sentiment, saying he wasn’t attacking the governor but wanted progress on his priorities, such as investment in Black communities.)

“We need more than just police,” Thompson said. “We need more than just judges and prosecutors. We need strong investments.”

Jaylani Hussein, director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, interrupted a news conference to ask Walz to veto the public safety agreement should it reach his desk without broader reforms. Walz suggested he wouldn’t.

State Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, said at a press conference Walz needed to “show some testicular fortitude” and was giving Black lawmakers and their constituents “lip service” rather than leadership in cutting a deal with Senate Republicans.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, said at a press conference Walz needed to “show some testicular fortitude” and was giving Black lawmakers and their constituents “lip service” rather than leadership in cutting a deal with Senate Republicans.
The POCI caucus said it planned to propose amendments on the House floor to change the compromise bill, though none raised their hands when asked by a reporter if they would vote against the legislation without the changes. “It is my bill, I’ll be voting for the bill,” Mariani said.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans said the agreement with House DFLers constituted a fair compromise, and urged the House to pass it without changes. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said the Senate would remove any new legislation added on by the House. “You don’t get everything you want,” Gazelka said.

Republicans have said many of the DFL proposals would make it harder for police to do their jobs and put public safety at risk. For instance, Republicans said they opposed bills to limit traffic stops because those stops sometimes result in officers finding illegal guns.

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Limmer cited a statistic from the State Patrol, which said in 1.18 million traffic stops from 2018 to the present, the agency arrested 6,217 people with active warrants and confiscated 932 firearms.

The GOP negotiated an increase in penalties for people who assault officers and an increase in pay for state-run law enforcement, among other measures aimed at beefing up police.

Asked Monday about DFL efforts to legislate through the POST Board, McCarthy had a mixed response. Not all decisions should be made by the licensing board, she said. “It’s my opinion that it’s best done by the elected officials because they’re the ones that hold the election certificate and they have a bigger view of things.”

Still, she said: “I also know that if people are being obstinate and resistant to change that sometimes you have to find other ways.”

“I don’t blame people for getting creative,” McCarthy said. 

MinnPost reporter Peter Callaghan contributed to this report.