The Hennepin County Board narrowly defeated a resolution Tuesday to condemn the use of chemical weapons and less-lethal projectiles by law enforcement officers against demonstrators.
Those who voted against it said it was only a symbolic gesture because the County Board has no authority over the Sheriff's Office. The resolution, offered by Commissioners Irene Fernando and Marion Greene, didn't leave room for board members to put it on hold for further conversations with law enforcement and community groups.
Fernando said that treatment of protesters during the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and after the police-related shooting of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center has been despicable. She said studies have shown that chemicals and rubber bullets are "not in line with our public health goals."
"It is also the financial responsibility of the board to approve any lawsuits that result from injury, " she said.
Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center recently passed similar resolutions condemning the use of less-lethal force, and after Wright's death the Brooklyn Center City Council passed a resolution prohibiting its officers from using tear gas or other chemicals and from shooting rubber-coated bullets to disperse crowds.
Brooklyn Center officers no longer can cover their badge numbers or stop citizens from videotaping them while on duty. They also are now prohibited from forming lines to arrest large numbers of people, and using chokeholds or harsher methods of restraint.
The use of such tactics caused a rift between Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott and Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson. Elliott said that using gas was inhumane, and Hutchinson wrote back to ask the mayor if he still wanted help from the Sheriff's Office with protests around the police department.
Greene, who had previously spoken against the handling of protests in Brooklyn Center, said she was increasingly uncomfortable with the militarization of public safety functions. Commissioner Jeff Lunde said he was frustrated with the lack of discussion with residents and the Sheriff's Office about tactics in future protests.
"This was a lost opportunity to have the conversation we wanted," he said. "I agree peaceful protesters shouldn't fear getting hurt. But should we say in the resolution that law enforcement should be allowed to let buildings burn to the ground?"
Commissioner Kevin Anderson agreed with Lunde, saying police were trying to do the right thing but needed to respond to real threats such as the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
University of Minnesota researchers have documented numerous cases of severe bodily harm in 2020 caused by the use of less-lethal projectiles in Minneapolis, including blindness and traumatic brain injuries to bystanders and peaceful protesters.
Commissioner Angela Conley said she was disappointed the resolution failed and that conversations could have continued even if it had passed.
In other action, the County Board tabled another proposed policy change involving the plazas at the Government Center and other public spaces during protests.
Fernando was concerned that concrete barriers, fencing and razor wire during Chauvin's trial may have violated a 2011 policy on the use of public spaces. But the board tabled the proposal to address a broader policy for all the county's properties — including keeping places like the plaza open, placing items on protective fences and making bathrooms available if buildings are closed.
Commissioners Debbie Goettel and Chris LaTondresse expressed concern about the use of public spaces for protests and protecting free speech.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465