Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz pushed for "substantive police reform" after the killing of George Floyd two years ago. Now, the Democratic governor is framing himself as a tough-on-crime supporter of law enforcement as he seeks re-election.
U.S. Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips, both Democrats who represent Twin Cities suburbs, voted to pass a sprawling federal police reform package after Floyd's death that would have stripped away a hotly debated provision that can protect law enforcement officers against civil lawsuits. Facing re-election challenges, the two are publicly distancing themselves from that part of the bill.
Walz, Craig and Phillips are among Democrats across the country scaling back police reform ambitions and emphasizing a law-enforcement-friendly approach as they calibrate their message to appeal to voters rattled by violent crime.
"As crimes have gone up — both crimes of property and violent crimes — obviously there's going to be an emphasis on pivoting towards that," Walz said in an interview. "But I don't think it changes us from thinking about what [is] modern policing going to look like?"
Republicans believe they hold the edge on public safety heading into November, and they plan to remind voters about Democrats' previous support for proposals to reshape police departments and reform their practices.
Republican Jim Schultz said he will keep hammering away on that against Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who backed last year's failed ballot amendment to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety. Ellison said he does not regret endorsing the measure.
"It is really something to have an attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of our state, get behind a policy like this," Schultz said. "I think it will hurt him."
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minneapolis Democrat who also endorsed the policing ballot measure, was nearly upset by a more moderate primary challenger who pledged support for law enforcement.
Walz has sought to fend off Republicans attacking his public safety record by more forcefully condemning violent crime. His GOP opponent, Scott Jensen, has repeatedly said Minnesota has become less safe under Walz's watch.
In recent months, Walz deployed the State Patrol and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to help quell crime in the Twin Cities and denounced shootings at the Minnesota State Fair and Mall of America.
The governor defended his handling of the riots that occurred after Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, saying there was no playbook for responding to such widespread civil unrest. Local and state authorities did the best they could responding, Walz said, and he snapped at Republicans who blame him for letting the Third Precinct burn, stating he did not order police to abandon the station.
"These are the operational commanders on the ground who make decisions of what they're doing," Walz said. "At the end of the day, we can rebuild property. We can't restore lives."
Advocates for police reform said they are frustrated with Democrats pivoting away from the issue. They had asked Walz and state lawmakers to end qualified immunity for police, the legal doctrine that can be used to shield officers accused of misconduct from civil legal actions.
"Most of the things that we proposed, elected officials did not have the political will to pass or even consider," said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and founder of the grassroots Racial Justice Network.
Walz noted that Minnesota legislators passed some police reform measures banning chokeholds and warrior-style training, and he will continue pushing to ban officers from affiliating with white supremacist groups and require swift release of body camera footage. But he did not say whether he supports ending qualified immunity for police, instead indicating he would like to see lawmakers find a middle-ground.
In the U.S. House, every Minnesota Democrat voted for police reform legislation named after Floyd weeks after his death in 2020 — and again in March of last year — only to see the effort stall in the Senate. That bill "eliminates qualified immunity for law enforcement," according to the Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee.
Amid Republican criticism of their votes, Phillips and Craig are now publicly separating themselves from that provision.
"While I supported much of the Justice in Policing Act, I did not favor the language on Qualified Immunity," Phillips, who was endorsed by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association in the 2020 cycle, said in a statement. "I voted to forward the legislation to the Senate with the hope and expectation that negotiations would generate a compromise."
Facing a tough re-election race for her swing seat, Craig said her "thinking has evolved."
"Knowing what I know now and how attacks on law enforcement have negatively impacted recruitment and retention and morale and how these factors hurt public safety efforts, I think that qualified immunity must remain in place for our law enforcement officers," Craig said.
The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA) lobbied the state's congressional delegation to oppose the federal qualified immunity change, said spokeswoman Leslie Rosedahl. The group has not yet endorsed in the Craig and Phillips races.
After Congress failed to reach a bipartisan policing deal, Democratic President Joe Biden signed a policing executive order on the second anniversary of Floyd's death. It did not mention qualified immunity.
Republican Tyler Kistner is challenging Craig again after a close 2020 loss. He received the MPPOA endorsement last cycle and has tried to tie Craig to the politically volatile "defund the police" slogan, although she is a vocal opponent of the movement.
Kistner charges that "it's an election year and Congresswoman Craig is shamelessly pandering to run away from her disastrous record in Washington." Craig's office said she has engaged with law enforcement regularly since her first term.
Craig and Phillips are both attempting to balance reform views with support for police.
"Defund the police was a sickening slogan," Phillips said in an interview. "It has decimated the esteem of police officers and eroded public safety in the communities that need it the very most."
But Phillips, who is facing a re-election challenge from Republican Tom Weiler, also added "the need for some reform is clear and the need for enhanced public safety is just as clear."
Still, the GOP is keen to keep trying to link Democrats to public safety worries.
"Of course the Democrats are in a bad position on law enforcement," Weiler said. "Because their party abandoned law enforcement two years ago."
Schultz has leveled the same charge at Ellison. He said the attorney general's embrace of the Minneapolis policing ballot amendment was disrespectful to officers.
"Public officials, with Keith Ellison at the front of them, have been extraordinarily hostile to them," Schultz said. "As attorney general, I will have the back of law enforcement."
Ellison rebutted that charge and said he was "never for defund the police." He said he supported the Minneapolis ballot measure because he wanted to build a more holistic department that includes police, mental health responders and other emergency personnel.
The Democrat said he has a strong working relationship with city and suburban police chiefs and even helped the St. Paul Police Department write a recruitment message.
"It is a noble profession, and we need good people in it. My thought is, if you don't join, then the Derek Chauvins of this world will," said Ellison, who prosecuted Chauvin for murdering Floyd.