A Republican-led state Senate hearing to examine rising crime in Minnesota trained much of its attention Thursday on law enforcement leaders' perspectives and GOP critiques of metro-area prosecutorial decisions.
The 2½-hour meeting featured testimony only from law enforcement and appeared to preview a slice of the debate around a major campaign issue for 2022. It also took place barely two weeks before the vote on a Minneapolis ballot question over the future of its policing that GOP senators and law enforcement testifiers warned would have lasting consequences beyond the city.
"The whole issue of criminal justice is a complex one and we all know that," said Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the Senate's judiciary and public safety committee. "We are taking a very narrow look at how law enforcement works in an era where prosecution is not taking place in some areas."
DFL committee members criticized Thursday's format for not widening the scope of expertise to consider the roots of violent crime rates and fractured police-community relations. Democrats called for including community members, health experts and academics, among others.
"Basically what I'm hearing is we are here to hear from people to tell us what we want to hear about preformed conclusions," said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis. "Simply put, police cannot create public safety all by themselves. They have to have legitimacy to do that, they need to have strong positive relations with the communities they serve in."
Limmer, who chairs the Senate's judiciary and public safety committee, highlighted what he called "the revolving door of the criminal justice system" by placing blame on prosecutorial and judicial discretion making possible repeat offenses by offenders given shorter or no terms of incarceration.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi's September announcement that his office would stop prosecuting most felony cases that stemmed from low-level traffic stops earned a significant focus on Thursday.
"Basically, the county attorney just announced his office won't uphold the law and won't prosecute those who break it," said Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. "That's absurd and a slap to the face of victims of crime."
Choi could not attend the hearing because of a scheduling conflict. In an interview later Thursday, Choi said that Republican efforts to tie his policy — which he said does not prevent officers from making traffic stops in cases where public safety is at risk — to violent crime rates were "conflating the issue in a very irresponsible way."
Choi said that his office and the participating agencies would not have approved such a policy had anyone believed it would have a negative effect on public safety. He cited research suggesting low-level traffic stops did little to reduce crime while disproportionately involving people of color. Choi said he believed the new policy has instead been a positive in its initial weeks.
"Policing cannot exist and cannot be effective unless it is legitimate in the eyes of the people," Choi said.
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher warned that "we are all expecting dramatic increases of crime in Minneapolis and St. Paul" if the Minneapolis referendum passes. Fletcher suggested tying local government aid "to the ability of local cities to provide an adequate local police force" — a proposal favored by some Republicans.
Fletcher suggested adding a new "aggravated fleeing statute" to address rising auto thefts and motor vehicle pursuits. He also wants to see mandatory minimum penalties for gun crimes and expanded helicopter support from the State Patrol.
Police leaders painted a picture of rising metro crime creeping beyond the Twin Cities urban core, with testimony from law enforcement leaders from Maple Grove, St. Cloud and Chisago County.
They also described flagging morale among police officers that has made it difficult to recruit new officers for the job.
"We all know that because of the narrative we all know that people are thinking twice about doing their job and perhaps being prosecuted and sent to prison," St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson said. "And what is going to happen if we don't change course is that a lot of good, decent, hardworking police officers are going to continue to leave this profession and we are going to be left with the ones that we don't want."
Testimony also included police hitting back at proposals to end so-called "pretextual" traffic stops involving minor equipment or registration violations. DFL lawmakers tried and failed to pass new limits on such traffic stops after the April police shooting of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center during a traffic stop.
Chisago County Sheriff Brandon Thyen attacked certain proposals as "fear-based police reform" that is "shutting our profession down."
"If the public doesn't want something to be illegal, then we need to remove that from the laws instead of making decisions that they are not going to be enforced and not prosecuted," Thyen said. "That actually I believe causes fear in the general public."
Limmer described the focus of Thursday's meeting as being on challenges for law enforcement and "the failures of some prosecutors not prosecuting."
Democrats meanwhile called for future hearings to pull in insights from other stakeholders.
"The narrow focus on this hearing on law enforcement comes nowhere near the breadth of inquiry needed to address this problem," said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park.
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755