Republicans in control of the Minnesota Senate faced pushback on a package of police reform proposals on Tuesday from Democrats and community members who said the bills don’t go far enough to hold officers accountable in cases of deadly force.
A wide gulf remained between House Democrats and Senate Republicans on the lengths of police reform measures in the wake of George Floyd’s May 25 killing by Minneapolis police, which sparked outrage across the globe. It’s unclear what both chambers will be able to pass during the short special session of the Legislature, which Republicans say they plan to adjourn Friday.
“This is a first step in a special session that has limited time,” said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, the chairman of the chamber’s judiciary committee. “This is not a last step; we need to continue this discussion, regardless of what happens in the November election.”
The bills being advanced by the GOP-controlled Senate late into Tuesday evening continue state funding to reimburse local governments for law enforcement training on crisis intervention and implicit bias. The Senate package also expands support for officers struggling with their mental health, increases background checks for law enforcement employees and requires reporting of some use-of-force cases to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Another bill requires the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, which handles law enforcement licensing and standards, to develop a statewide policy banning chokeholds and neck restraints like those used on Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who now faces murder charges. The POST board also would have to adopt policies that require officers to intervene and report in some cases of excessive force.
Those measures line up with a handful proposed by Democrats in control of the House, but their package of roughly 20 public safety and criminal justice bills go further than the Senate measures. The DFL bills would ban “warrior-style” training, eliminate cash bail for misdemeanor offenses, and spend $15 million on community interventions and policing alternatives.
House Democrats also are pushing to give Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office responsibility for prosecuting officer-involved deaths, a measure GOP leaders oppose. Another point of contention is a DFL measure to restore felons’ voting rights while they are on probation.
GOP lawmakers have raised concerns with tying felon voting restoration to police reform and said they oppose having Ellison, an outspoken progressive Democrat, handle cases of deadly or excessive force.
“We don’t think that the attorney general should have more powers. He used to be the [DNC vice chairman.] We think he’s partisan and we don’t think he’s the right guy to have more powers,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. “We don’t think we should have felon voting, and we don’t think we should dismantle the police.”
Calls by a majority of the Minneapolis City Council to disband or dismantle the city’s police force have become a focal point of criticism for Republicans nationwide, including President Donald Trump, who issued an executive order Tuesday outlining a more limited set of police reforms.
But some witnesses in a nearly three-hour Minnesota Senate hearing said the GOP legislation doesn’t go far enough to address broader problems with police accountability.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, who previously served as chief of police in Inver Grove Heights, encouraged senators to support a House DFL bill that changes the arbitration process to prevent some problematic officers from returning to their job after being fired.
“The spotlight is turned on us, the world is watching us as Minnesota is at the center of another tragedy,” he said. “We cannot accept that things will just calm down; we cannot accept that things will get back to normal after this. That’s just not possible.”
Policing reform is just one issue legislators are trying to tackle during the special session, which was triggered by Gov. Tim Walz’s extension of his emergency powers in response to the coronavirus.
The Senate passed a bill that would allocate more than $841 million in federal aid for local governments struggling with COVID-19 costs.
The House has yet to hold a special session hearing on the federal aid but it has bipartisan support.
Lawmakers also want to help businesses damaged during riots in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Walz asked the Legislature on Tuesday not to leave until they have police reforms as well as a bonding bill to fund public works projects statewide.
Walz has proposed a $2.6 billion bonding bill to renovate state buildings, water systems, roads and other infrastructure. Gazelka has said he’s willing to go up to $1.35 billion.
“This is the rainy day that Minnesota has been preparing for,” Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said. “The time for a robust bonding bill is right now and we must act.” House Republicans, however, are still demanding that the governor first end his emergency powers, which they say are no longer needed.
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.