Legislature passes policing bill, ends special session

Published 8:34 am Tuesday, July 21, 2020

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By Brian Bakst

A sweeping proposal to change the culture and oversight of Minnesota law enforcement is on its way to Gov. Tim Walz after lawmakers passed it early Tuesday before adjourning their special session.

It governs how police are trained, how they’re held accountable for bad behavior and what happens when they use deadly force.

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When George Floyd was killed during an arrest in late May, the video showing his neck pinned beneath a Minneapolis police officer’s knee gave rise to calls for more police accountability in Minnesota and far beyond.

“That killing touched off a massive outrage of Minnesotans from all communities — Black, white, brown, urban, suburban, rural,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who added that the bill he helped write reacts directly to the Floyd incident and much more.

The bill prohibits the use of chokeholds and other restraint methods, although there would be some limited exceptions where those maneuvers are allowed. Republican Sen. Warren Limmer, another architect of the compromise, said police were supportive of the change as long as it didn’t put officers at greater risk.

“They do not want to use chokeholds in their day-to-day practice,” Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said. “They condemn that, but they reserve that opportunity to at least defend their own life or the life of someone else when all other options have been negated in the conflict.”

Other provisions of the legislation include:

• Outlawing warrior training that dehumanizes people or encourages aggressive conduct.
• Creation of a special independent unit at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for investigations of fatal police encounters.
• More required reporting around use-of-force incidents.
• Establishment of a new community relations advisory council to consult with the Police Officers Standards and Training Board on policy changes.
• Training for peace officers for dealing with people with autism or in a mental health crisis. De-escalation training for situations that could turn volatile.
• Lawmakers met in the middle around residency expectations for large-city officers. Cities and counties could offer incentives, perhaps property tax breaks or fix-up loans, to encourage officers to live in the communities they patrol. But it won’t be mandated.

DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler called the larger proposal a significant package that passed with relative speed.

“It’s too late to save George and those who died before him,” Winkler said, “but it may save lives in the future. This has been a step towards real equality under law, and it’s been bipartisan.”

Sen. Patricia Torres Ray of Minneapolis was one of a few Democrats to vote against it.

“The communities that are impacted by police brutality want more,” she said “They want transformational policy, and this bill is just not that.”

A spokesperson for Walz says the governor supports the compromise, which passed 102-29 in the House and 60-7 in the Senate.

It’s the only bill of note to pass this special session. A public works construction bill that also contained some tax cuts could not garner a required 60 percent supermajority support to pass.

Nor did any changes to the emergency powers Walz invoked to manage the coronavirus crisis.

The ongoing concern over the coronavirus and the measures Walz has put in place to fight its spread could lead to more special sessions in the months ahead. If Walz extends his emergency authority in August, he’d have to bring the Legislature back again for the summer’s third special session.

A resolution passed Monday by the Senate urges Walz to allow school districts to decide on their own how to hold classes in the fall, but it’s not binding.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said most parents he’s interacted with are adamant that kids get back in the classroom.

“They know it’s important for their kids to be in school. And if for some reason they choose not to, there are other things they can do. They can do homeschool. They can do online. But the parent is involved in that driver seat position.”

Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, DFL-Eden Prairie, argued that there are still too many unknowns and that a state policy is essential.

“When that first teacher comes down with COVID-19, do all 150 of their kids get tested?” he asked. “Who pays for those tests? Is it going to happen at school? Or are their parents responsible for those tests?”