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Latest police recruitment proposal reveals DFL split on public safety issues

While helping police fill open jobs has drawn bipartisan support at the Capitol this year, a key Democratic lawmaker on Monday criticized a bill proposed by fellow DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler. 

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler speaking at a Monday press conference at the Minnesota State Capitol.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler was flanked by two legislators from St. Paul and Minneapolis and a handful of lawmakers representing Coon Rapids, Edina, Plymouth and St. Cloud at Monday's press conference.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

As House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, announced at the Capitol on Monday a $16 million plan to recruit and retain police officers, he was flanked by a handful of lawmakers from the Twin Cities and its suburbs.

Not at the news conference, however, were the Democratic chairman and vice chairman of a key House committee on crime and public safety. 

That wasn’t an accident. While helping police fill open jobs has drawn bipartisan support at the Capitol this year, state Rep. Carlos Mariani, a DFLer from St. Paul who chairs the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee, criticized Winkler for not giving him more input or the details of the bill, saying the legislation is an incomplete approach to public safety if taken alone. Mariani also touted a bill from vice chairman of the committee, New Hope Rep. Cedrick Frazier, who proposed pairing some recruitment efforts with other plans, including funds for community violence intervention groups.

Mariani said he believes DFLers will reach a united approach to public safety and Winkler applauded Frazier’s bill. But the split nevertheless highlighted internal divisions among House Democrats on two potent election issues — crime and policing — that will play a major role not only in determining who controls the Legislature, but also in a race for Hennepin County Attorney that has pitted some DFLers against one another.

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What Winkler’s bill does

Winkler, who is running for Hennepin County Attorney this year, proposed a $13 million “expedited” education and training program for police officers aimed at finding cops with “strong moral character and a proven commitment to community and public service,” the legislation says.

Eligible candidates would need a two or four year degree and face a selection committee of police groups and would take courses tuition free. There are other financial incentives: people in the program would get a stipend for living expenses, student loan forgiveness for past debt, a signing bonus when hired and a retention bonus after 18 months.

State Rep. Carlos Mariani
Another initiative in Winkler’s bill would offer $2.6 million in scholarships to “highly qualified Minnesota high school graduates” to get four-year law enforcement degrees. Lastly, Winkler would spend $800,000 on outreach to find qualified candidates for the expedited training program.

Winkler told reporters the idea for targeting officers with “strong moral character” would be accomplished through “screening on the front end, rather than just opening up for anybody and then try to hire after they’ve gone through training.”

In St. Cloud, Winkler said police screen candidates by asking if they volunteer in their community. “If the answer is no, they are screened out because they are looking for people committed to public service,” Winkler said.

The $16 million plan is one of several at the Legislature this year aimed at recruiting and retaining police as cops say they’re struggling to fill open jobs and keep officers on the job.

Senate Republicans have a $65 million proposal that also includes scholarships and retention bonuses for officers, and Gov. Tim Walz asked legislators to approve nearly $6 million for police recruitment and another $300 million to help cities, counties and tribes pay for public safety initiatives that could include money for more police.

House Democrats, meanwhile, had so far proposed creating a task force aimed at recruiting new officers and increasing the diversity and “professional background” of police. The measure is one part of a larger $100 million public safety initiative spearheaded by Frazier and backed by Mariani that includes $40 million for anti-violence community groups.

DFL on how to help police recruit

Winkler’s announcement on Monday created a snapshot of where the politics of police stand at the Minnesota Legislature.

The House Majority Leader was flanked by two legislators from St. Paul and Minneapolis and a handful of lawmakers representing Coon Rapids, Edina, Plymouth and St. Cloud — where the issues of violent crime and support for police is likely to play a large role in elections this fall. Winkler himself has positioned himself as more of a political moderate than some other candidates in the Hennepin County Attorney’s race and highlighted prosecution of violent crimes as a top priority.

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“Democratic leaders have consistently said we support law enforcement, but we want more law enforcement to serve the communities that they’re responsible for,” Winkler said, responding to GOP attacks against Democrats for the push by some in Minneapolis to defund or dismantle the police department.

State Rep. Cedrick Frazier
State Rep. Cedrick Frazier
Winkler also said his bill was only one of many introduced by Democrats this year, and he praised Frazier’s legislation, saying it was a “robust package” that included important things like money for community intervention groups and other ideas on recruiting for law enforcement. He said Mariani’s committee will have a “whole range of bills” to consider before finalizing what to move forward for consideration by the full House, and said police accountability legislation remains important.

But Winkler also planned for the bill to be heard first in the House’s higher education committee, rather than Mariani’s public safety committee.

Mariani objected to aspects of Winkler’s proposal, saying he felt he wasn’t consulted enough, and he pushed back against an initial plan for the legislation to be heard first in the Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee.

“The fact that I didn’t have the details about this bill, the public safety chair, that personally doesn’t feel good, but it also isn’t smart,” Mariani said.

Mariani and Frazier reflect the views of some in the Democratic party, often based in deeper blue areas, that have been more skeptical to funnel cash to traditional policing initiatives, arguing police need to rebuild trust with the community through new accountability legislation after the killings of Amir Locke, Daunte Wright, George Floyd and others. Both Mariani and Frazier support former Hennepin County Public Defender Mary Moriarty in the Hennepin County Attorney’s race.

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Mariani also said his committee has been spending time on things he believes will help address crime faster, like more resources for criminal investigations to help solve more violent crimes.

“The trust is not going to be built if at the end of the day the Legislature only does this — provide scholarships and bonuses and whatever else, the Senate has this ad campaign,” Mariani said. “Rightly or wrongly, it’s going to be viewed by a lot of people like, ‘Hey look you kill Black folks and you get rewarded with scholarships.’ I think that’s simplistic, but I also understand the honest emotions around that and I think we’ve got to pay attention to that.”

Meanwhile, Republicans who control the state Senate have appeared united in efforts to pay for more police and set tougher penalties for crimes, and House Republicans quickly painted the divide between Mariani and Winkler on Monday night as progressive Democrats blowing up DFL plans to improve their image on policing in an election year.

A ‘united posture’?

Mariani also said Monday afternoon he plans to “exercise a muscular approach” to make sure Winkler’s bill lands in his committee, which he said has expertise and is tasked with police oversight. He said there can’t be an “end around.”

By Monday night, the planned hearing Tuesday in the higher education committee was canceled.

Despite the tension, Mariani said he thinks Democrats will eventually have a “united posture” on policing and criminal justice even if there are factions within the party with different approaches to the topic. He said he does think there is a “pipeline issue” with law enforcement, which he said lots of professions are facing but should be addressed.

Mariani said Winkler’s bill could be “part of a solution,” as long as the state also makes steps toward “a meaningful accountability system.”

“I’m not going to argue against it,” Mariani said of Winkler’s legislation.

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He also said he hasn’t completely endorsed money for police recruitment and retention in part to hold leverage in negotiations between the House DFL and Senate GOP. He said if “you’re conceding something that one side wants right away then how do you hold the rest of that negotiation in an environment like ours? So what’s the leverage if you will to make sure all the good things you need to happen are at the table.”

Senate Republicans haven’t endorsed money for community nonprofits doing violence intervention Mariani said, or police accountability measures like restrictions to no-knock search warrants Mariani has supported.

“Why would I say, ‘Hey, listen, that idea about scholarships and bonuses — you know I could do that, that’s a good idea,’” Mariani said. “But I do that before we agree on all these other things, at that point they’ll take that and stop negotiating.”

Winkler said too he hopes House Democrats will get on board with helping to pay for police recruitment — eventually. “I think that our caucus should be on board with an approach that funds all avenues of public safety, that reflects the values of the community,” he said. “And that’s the conversation we have to have.”