New bans on chokeholds and "warrior-style" training for law enforcement were hailed as major achievements when the Minnesota Legislature passed a sweeping package of police reforms last year after George Floyd's killing.
It was also billed as only a first step. Now, the police shooting of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center has renewed urgency for a broader package of police accountability measures that has gained traction only among Democrats in the divided state Legislature.
"We must take action now," said state Sen. Melissa Franzen, DFL-Edina, speaking last week outside a fenced-off Brooklyn Center Police Department being patrolled by National Guard troops. "The state, and the country, is watching us."
Wright's death, and the unrest it sparked, aim a new spotlight on proposals to establish civilian oversight of police, end qualified immunity for officers and limit when police can stop drivers for vehicle violations. Taken together, these and other bills to reshape policing in Minnesota show signs of dominating the final weeks of the session as lawmakers try to pass a two-year budget for the state and stave off a government shutdown in July.
"This is complex, and we're not just going to jam it in in the next four weeks," said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, who said the Senate would hold new hearings on policing this month. "But we are listening and I think that's important that people know."
A growing chorus of Democrats and community activists ramped up pressure last week on DFL Gov. Tim Walz and leadership in the Democratic-led House and GOP-controlled Senate to pass these bills before starting budget negotiations. Walz's first public remarks after Wright's death included a demand that the Legislature pass new police reforms. The governor pointed to Maryland, whose government invoked Floyd's death in passing policing bills this month.
"Don't ever lose track that all of these conversations we just had all stem from the fact that we made changes in July, but Daunte Wright is still dead," Walz later said.
Walz's comments prompted initial frustration from House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, by not recognizing that the House has approved a broad range of bills this session — a stark contrast to the Senate's lack of action.
Gazelka described the upcoming Senate hearings as "fact-finding" in nature and said they would also examine civil unrest in the Twin Cities. But he stopped short of promising that anything would pass the Senate before the end of the session. New policing reforms were absent from the public safety budget bill the Senate passed last week, and Democrats unsuccessfully tried to attach new policies as amendments.
Several statewide law enforcement lobbying groups broadly oppose many of the new proposals, adding that departments still need more time to train officers on the standards passed last year. A six-month extension on training deadlines appeared likely to pass the House. At least five priorities making their way through the House highlight the demands being echoed by Democrats in both chambers and community activists.
They want to let local governments create civilian oversight councils to investigate police misconduct and impose discipline on officers.
But Gazelka said last week that law enforcement should maintain oversight ability, and he pointed out that the July policing bill added more civilians to the state's Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).
Another bill would prohibit police from altering or destroying body camera footage and require that families of those killed by police be able to view such footage within 48 hours of a fatal encounter.
A third bill would ban officers from affiliating with white supremacist groups, which DFL senators tried unsuccessfully to add to last week's public safety bill. Gazelka has questioned whether a written policy is necessary. Democrats also want to create a grant program for community groups to work on crime prevention.
Another proposal would end qualified immunity for police officers, a standard that makes it difficult to sue officers for wrongdoing.
Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, wrote in opposition this month to multiple House proposals and defended qualified immunity as an "essential legal provision" for all government officials.
"It is particularly essential in recruiting and retaining quality police officers," Peters wrote. "It does NOT provide civil liability protection for an officer who knowingly violates constitutional rights. We don't need to study this issue: We need to educate people about its importance."
University of St. Thomas law Prof. Gregory Sisk told a House committee last week that a growing scholarly consensus has formed against qualified immunity, calling it an "abysmal failure."
"It has hollowed out constitutional rights, leaving some victims of unconstitutional judicial misconduct without any remedy," Sisk said.
Citing Wright's death after police said he was pulled over for expired tabs, House Democrats also proposed new limits to when police can stop motorists. Under an amendment to the House's public safety omnibus bill last week, police would not be able to stop drivers for expired registration or equipment violations.
That late addition joined other policing policy changes in the House public safety bill that is nearing a floor vote.
In a likely preview of the upcoming debate, Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, called the measure "hostile" to law enforcement. The bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Carlos Mariani of St. Paul, called that assertion "ludicrous," noting that the bill devotes more money to police training than the Senate version and includes provisions law enforcement has asked for.
Frustrations among civil rights advocates over the lack of further police reforms this year were high well before Wright's death.
"We need leaders who are ready to take a stand no matter the politics," said Angela Rose Myers, president of the Minneapolis NAACP. "Stand with the people. The people of Brooklyn Center and the people of Minnesota are out in the streets every night and we are calling for change."
Walz had early private talks with DFL and GOP leadership last week. "I left that conversation more hopeful than I had been," Walz said. "Not just around police accountability but just our ability in Minnesota to get back to that very unusual place where we were last year, where there was a lot of collegiality, there was a lot of trust and there were some candid heart-to-heart conversations."
Staff writers Briana Bierschbach and Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755