One of the few issues to draw bipartisan support at the Minnesota Capitol this year has been efforts to recruit and retain officers using money from the state’s projected $7.75 billion budget surplus.
But one of those initiatives — a $1 million pro-cop advertising campaign — proposed by Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, has set off a pointed debate in the Republican-led Senate for its timing and messaging after the killing of Amir Locke by Minneapolis police.
The debate has also turned into a proxy fight over broader police issues that are sure to play a role in the fall elections that will determine who controls the House, Senate and governor’s office.
Part of a larger recruitment effort
Housley’s bill would direct the Minnesota Department of Public Safety to work with the state’s police licensing and training board on an ad campaign the legislation says will “publicly promote the importance of peace officers for the safety of Minnesotans” and draw more people into the profession.
While the legislation doesn’t specify what that ad campaign would look like, police officials say they’ve got at least a general idea.
In a hearing last week in the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said the money could be spent on a “branding and marketing campaign” that could be used by colleges and universities with police training programs and by departments themselves that are hiring.
Potts said when such branding material is “done properly and done well” it can be successful. He highlighted ads from the Alaska State Troopers selling law enforcement and Alaska’s outdoors and environment as desirable. Potts said similar “robust” marketing and branding campaigns for the armed services have also worked, even if policing and the military aren’t the same profession. Potts noted there are roughly 900 open police officer jobs in Minnesota right now and a drop in enrollment in the state’s law enforcement education programs.
In a separate hearing Thursday in the Senate’s Finance Committee, Housley said the ads would “build up the entire field of law enforcement” at a time when the industry is having a hard time attracting workers. “The morale of our police officers right now is so so very low and there are so many police officers that are retiring early and they can’t fill the void of these police officers that are retiring,” she said.
The GOP is fast-tracking Housley’s bill, aiming for a vote by the full Senate on Monday, even though the $1 million ad campaign is only a small part of a $65 million Republican plan aimed at helping recruit and retain officers. The GOP also hopes to pass $20 million for bonuses offered to new officers and $40 million for scholarships and grants tied to law enforcement school programs.
Most legislation in the House and Senate is passed in a package that is tied to a specific topic area, such as public safety. Then, later in session, lawmakers from the two chambers meet to negotiate a final agreement to approve the “omnibus” bills. Some standalone bills do get floor votes, but no other police recruitment and retention bill has been slated for a floor vote by itself in the Senate, suggesting the ad campaign measure is an urgent priority for the GOP.
Republicans aren’t the only ones to support an ad campaign. DFL Gov. Tim Walz proposed spending nearly $6 million over the next three years on improving police recruitment, part of which would include developing an advertising campaign.
Walz also has other plans to increase recruiting and retention, such as scholarships for students, and House-majority Democrats are also generally in favor of such efforts. DFL legislators have already said they want to help recruit police candidates from diverse and nontraditional backgrounds, and Democratic House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley plans to roll out a new set of recruitment and retention proposals later this week. In the Senate, DFLers on the chamber’s Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee backed a Republican bill that would increase financial aid for students seeking law enforcement degrees and even pushed to double the maximum grant awards in the proposed program.
Senate Democrats push back
But Senate Democrats have balked at some of the specifics of Housley’s ad campaign plan. Several lawmakers said the effort seemed too broad and unfocused, or said the police licensing board doesn’t have the experience to carry it out. Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina, said during the Finance committee hearing on Thursday that not defining the ad campaign or properly targeting it meant the plan might just be “throwing money into the air,” and said it wouldn’t do anything to reduce crime quickly.
Roseville Sen. John Marty, the top Democrat on the Finance committee, said what Minnesota “desperately” needs is “more understanding law enforcement that represents more the communities they work for.”
Marty proposed removing the money for the ad campaign and instead spending $2 million on the “pathways to policing” career training program that aims to bring diverse recruits into law enforcement.
Senate Democrats also had a larger point of disagreement: timing. López Franzen said Senate Republicans should “really be sensitive about the moment we’re doing this,” a reference to police killing Locke, sparking protests and prompting renewed scrutiny of police tactics in the Twin Cities and around the state. López Franzen said the legislation could be OK in a package of other police recruitment bills, but she said the GOP was “leading with this” in a time where there is higher distrust in police after a “horrible incident in our community.”
Marty went further than López Franzen, saying the timing was “highly insensitive” as many people are “upset at some of the things that have been happening in policing.”
“Saying we’re going to run an advertising campaign the week after that, we’re going to put a million dollars into saying ‘police are great’ — there are lots of wonderful police officers but let’s try and address the problems,” Marty said.
Election year politics
The political fight over the bill is also tied to both parties’ election plans for 2022. Republicans have already made support for police a key pitch. The DFL has used police reform and accountability as a campaign issue, and while some of their anti-crime plans rely on police, they also hope to fund community groups for help alongside officers.
Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, said lawmakers should instead give $1 million to the Minneapolis nonprofit Stairstep Foundation for crime prevention and intervention efforts in high-crime areas instead of funding the law enforcement ad campaign.
Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, meanwhile, responded to Marty’s earlier proposal by saying “why are we trying to not promote law enforcement as an honorable profession after the two years that we’ve been through.”
“I look at this and I say after spending two years of progressive politicians tearing down our police, trying to defund our police, besmirching their reputations, Senator Housley has got a reasonable bill here to try to build that reputation back up,” Pratt said. “And I think it’s a good try.”
Sen. Michelle Benson, a Ham Lake Republican running for governor, said police have faced protests at their homes, people calling them names like “pig” and “teenagers who feel free to flip you off as you’re driving down the road.”
“Maybe a sign that says we appreciate you keeps them from leaving,” Benson said.
And Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said replacing the $1 million ad campaign with money for the pathways to policing program would be “voting against peace officers.” Republicans already had a separate $1 million bill for the pathways program, so they amended the ad campaign measure to include the money for advertisements and $1 million for career training initiative.
On Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee approved the bill on a 6-4 party-line vote. If and when the bill passes the Senate, however, House lawmakers don’t have to take it up quickly, by itself, or at all.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Thursday she didn’t have enough context on the Senate debate to weigh in on whether it’s appropriate to pass an advertising campaign measure soon after the Locke killing.
“At the point at which something heads our way I’ll take a look at it,” Hortman said.
State government writer Peter Callaghan contributed to this report