Minnesota Legislature struggles for compromise on policing

Published 7:09 am Tuesday, May 4, 2021

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MINNEAPOLIS — Negotiators in Minnesota’s divided Legislature on Monday kicked off what’s sure to be a long and contentious debate over whether further police accountability legislation is needed in the state where former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in the death of George Floyd.

The Democratic-controlled state House included several policing provisions in its overall public safety budget bill for the 2020 session in the hopes of building on a package the Legislature approved last summer in the aftermath of Floyd’s death and the sometimes violent unrest that followed. But the

Republican-controlled state Senate included no police accountability measures in its version of the budget bill and has already rejected several House proposals in separate votes.

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So a House-Senate conference committee on Monday began trying to find out whether any compromises are possible by the end of the session, which is scheduled to happen in two weeks.

Democratic state Rep. Carlos Mariani, of St. Paul, who chairs the House public safety committee, said the Senate passed a “very thin bill” that fails to address changes that the public is still demanding.

“The House believes that we’ve put together an anti-bad apple bill,” Mariani said. “We’ve put together a bill that is anti-bad cop.”

But GOP state Sen. Warren Limmer, of Maple Grove, whom Democrats have decried as one of the major obstacles to change, defended the Senate’s resistance. He said his chamber traditionally prefers to leave policy measures out of its budget bills and consider them separately. Limmer, who chairs the Senate public safety committee, remained noncommittal about whether Senate negotiators would accept any House accountability proposals.

The House bill includes a provision that would limit the authority of police to make traffic stops solely for minor offenses such as expired license plates or broken lights in the wake of last month’s fatal police shooting of black motorist Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center by a white officer who, according to the city’s former police chief, may have meant to user her Taser, not her gun. It would also limit the use of no-knock search warrants to a short list of serious crimes. Police would be banned from belonging to or supporting white supremacist groups. There would be stronger citizen oversight of law enforcement. And body camera video from deadly police encounters would have to be released to families within 48 hours.

Last summer’s bill included a statewide ban on chokeholds in all but extreme circumstances, a ban on “warrior training” for officers, and a requirement that officers intervene when another officer uses excessive force. Democratic Gov. Tim Walz last week described them as “historic first steps” while calling for further action following Chauvin’s conviction.

“While there was accountability in the courtroom, systemic change is going to take work and it’s going to take a lot of folks letting down their guard a bit and having conversations,” Walz said.

The coming May 25 anniversary of Floyd’s death has also generated pressure on Congres s to pass federal policing reform legislation named after Floyd.

In legislatures across the country, lawmakers of color have seized on the nation’s reckoning with racial injustice. But pervasive legal roadblocks to police accountability remain firmly in place, and partisan differences have been a major obstacle to change.

Democratic state Rep. Cedrick Frazier, of New Hope, highlighted how demands for change were raised at a march Sunday led by Wright family members. He said the Senate bill “does not speak to those demands.”

And Frazier, who is Black, criticized Limmer, who is white, for not holding a single hearing on police accountability in his public safety committee since the session began in January.

“We live in the same Minnesota, but I gotta tell you, I do absolutely experience this Minnesota differently than you do, and a large part is become of my skin color,” Frazier said.

State Sen. Ron Latz, of St. Louis Park, who is the lone Senate Democrat on the conference committee, said Limmer’s tight control of the Senate’s public safety agenda left no viable vehicles for policing measures except the budget bill.

At a separate, online forum Monday with Minnesota’s top four legislative leaders, Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, said it’s time for lawmakers to address racial disparities in policing and the state’s criminal justice system more generally. Hortman said Minnesota-based corporations are having trouble luring workers to the state due to the national spotlight on those disparities.

“Minnesota has a brand problem that we need to fix,” Hortman said.

But Republican Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, argued that businesses are leaving Minneapolis not because of racial disparities in policing, but “because the streets aren’t safe and they’re very frustrated with that.”

Mariani said he plans to bring up the House-passed policing measures Tuesday when he takes the gavel from Limmer for the conference committee’s second meeting.

“This will probably get pretty tense at times,” he said. “And that’s OK. You know, that’s where good stuff comes from.”