Gov. Tim Walz called on state legislators Wednesday to pass new policing and criminal justice overhauls next year, warning that time is running out for meaningful change.
Speaking to a virtual audience of criminal justice scholars, activists and elected officials, Walz said a package of sweeping new measures that he signed into law in July in response to George Floyd’s death, which included bans on chokeholds and warrior-style training, did not go far enough to address long-standing racial disparities and curb police misconduct in Minnesota.
“Imagine us being pleased that in the summer of 2020, after George Floyd was choked to death on the street, that we’re patting ourselves on the back because we banned chokeholds,” Walz said in remarks delivered during the Minnesota Justice Research Center’s virtual Re-Imagining Justice Conference. “That ought to show you the amount of work that needs to be done.”
The changes Walz signed into law in July also included a new requirement for officers to intervene in cases of misconduct, and new data collection and oversight measures. But on Wednesday, the governor said he expected the new Legislature, when it reconvenes for its next regular session in January, to “come right back to where we were” in trying to advance new criminal justice policy proposals.
One priority telegraphed by the governor on Wednesday included juvenile justice proposals such as raising the age of delinquency in Minnesota to above 14 and “ending the medieval, Byzantine practice of shackling juveniles and adding to a trauma that’s already there” as specific priorities for his office next year.
“Incarceration is a failure of the system,” Walz said. “When we get to that point, we have failed at every step along the way and most of the outcomes after incarceration do not end well.”
The center’s annual conference is its first without founder Tom Johnson, the former Hennepin County Attorney who died in June after a six-year battle with advanced prostate cancer.
Panelists also confronted the ongoing debate over the future of policing in Minnesota. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey critiqued the “binary mind-set” of either abolishing police or taking no action. Still, proponents for police reform “rightly point out that we have turned to police to handle issues in society that nobody wants to do,” Frey said.
Jamael Lundy, a policy aide for state Rep. Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul Democrat who has been chairman of the House’s public safety committee since 2019, called for improving state regulation of law enforcement and allowing for more civilian oversight.
Of calls to “abolish” police, Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said he did not see that as a possibility. Police departments do need to change to better reflect the communities they serve, Harrington said, but so does a system where “anything the government doesn’t know what to do with, they’ve given it to the police department.”
“A lot of the social conditions where we have crime are the result of the governance system that we are operating in and the police are simply the group that works 24/7 and makes house calls to respond to those spots that are troubling to the community,” Harrington said.
Chas Anderson, a former top House Republican staffer who now lobbies for the national Justice Action Network on public safety policy in Minnesota, said Walz’s spotlighting of the issue makes the debate “a little more friendly vs. a governor who is not interested in reform.”
Yet Anderson conceded that another round of divided government could pose a challenge for passing new criminal justice proposals in 2021. The policy package Walz signed into law this summer involved some 16 offers traded between legislative leaders before both chambers signed off.
“The areas we can make progress in, we either make it or we face the fact that it’s probably never going to happen,” Walz said. “I truly believe it.”