Rep. Patricia Mueller: Public safety needs attention

Published 5:10 pm Friday, September 29, 2023

This last legislative session, the House and Senate majority passed a change to the law that restricts the ability of school resource officers (SROs) to respond appropriately to aggressive or violent situations. Because of the change in the law, school districts across the state have lost their school resource officers, including five districts just in the last week.

The state’s largest school district has lost all but one of their SROs. Just days after the Mankato School District lost their SRO program, there was a fight in one of their high schools that required a police response — something that may not have happened if there was still an SRO present in the school.

The League of Minnesota Cities, numerous police departments and law enforcement groups, school districts and teachers from districts across the state, and dozens of legislators have called for a special session to address the problems with the new law. Unfortunately, after initially supporting a special session, Gov. Walz now opposes one, instead saying we need to explain to police how the new law works. The problem here, though, is not that police don’t understand the law. The problem is that it was written in an unclear way that seems to contradict what advocates are saying about the way it is supposed to work. It also takes away tools SROs need to deescalate aggressive situations, and potentially opens officers up to civil liability if someone disagrees with the way they handle a situation.

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The SRO problem is a serious one, but it’s only one in a long line of issues facing public safety in Minnesota. As a member of the public safety committee, I have toured many of our state prisons.

Our jails and prisons in Minnesota have $650 million in deferred maintenance, including major infrastructure needs like holes in windows, falling facade, and a lack of air conditioning that causes unlivable environments. We also have a staffing problem.

Many jails and prisons cannot fully staff their facilities, and are mandating overtime. This causes low Department of Corrections (DOC) morale and causes inmates to be confined to their cells. It is imperative that we have a functioning DOC so that we can hold criminals accountable for crime and then provide rehabilitative services they’ll need to re-enter society.

And yet, the entire public safety department that includes EMT, law enforcement, firefighters, DOC, and several other public services that keep our citizens safe is just a fraction of our state’s $72 billion budget.

The bottom line here is that we need to think very seriously about the way we fund and run our public safety system before we make major changes, like the SRO legislation.

Instead of rushing through new law changes and keeping funding at low levels that cause jails and prisons to defer necessary maintenance, we need to make sure that our public safety system is running well and keeping people safe.