To the many good reasons for this year's post-George Floyd Legislature to tighten the state's grip on policing, permit me to add one from my state history corner:
When government services have gone wrong in this state, it's often been at least in part because the governance of those services has been flawed. Structural defects such as excessive decentralization, inadequate oversight, and missing or tangled lines of accountability often have been as much a part of the story as plain old human fallibility.
In such cases — and policing in Minnesota sure looks to be one — it's been necessary to do more than toss out "bad apples." The Legislature has also been obliged to amend the offending service's governance to better uphold public values and protect the public purse.
That was the case in 1878 when the state created the office of public examiner (today's state auditor's office) to detect and deter then-widespread graft by local officials. It was true in 1933, when the Legislature created Minnesota's first income tax to both bail out and improve failing public schools at the bottom of the Great Depression. The state's ensuing multi-decade quality push led to consolidation of what had been more than 8,000 school districts to 336 today.
Fast-forward to the modern era: In 2009, the state Office of the Legislative Auditor blew the whistle on misuse of forfeited property by the Metro Gang Strike Force, leading to its dissolution.
Of course, the misdeeds of the Metro Gang Strike Force were minor blemishes compared with the ugly disfigurement of this state's reputation that's been caused by the overuse of deadly force in policing.
Racism, not bad governance, is the real root of today's policing problem, you say? I won't disagree. But that acknowledgment doesn't justify inaction by the 2021 Legislature. Get police governance right, and racism's sway over police practices has a better chance of diminishing.
Law enforcement in Minnesota consists of a tangled web of 417 overlapping departments and agencies and nearly 11,000 licensed officers. Those licenses are issued by state government. But as state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, explained at an April 29 briefing, the state has typically failed to use those licenses as an accountability tool.
"Minnesotans should be shocked that over its decadeslong history, the state professional licensing board has rarely acted to use its regulatory powers to help pick out the 'bad apples' and ensure that licensed professionals not act in unprofessional ways and in life-threatening ways," Mariani said.
As he put it, that board could use some "statutory affirmation" from the Legislature. The bill Mariani assembled as chair of the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee would give the professional board access to more personnel data with which to hold cops accountable. It "uses the power of licensing to help save lives," he said.
That notion is my favorite among the many ways the House's bill attempts to assert more state control. Among the bill's other features: A ban on traffic stops for expired license tabs and items hanging from a rearview mirror. A bar on police officer affiliation with white supremacist or hate groups. New limits on no-knock warrants. Beefed-up requirements for handling videos produced by body-worn cameras.
Worthy changes all, and notable, too, in this sense: They fall well short of a state takeover. That's by design.
"I was brought up on local control. I'm not for a state police," said state Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, a former St. Paul police chief and former state senator. Along with Attorney General Keith Ellison, Harrington headed a working group on police use of deadly force whose February 2020 recommendations are laced throughout the House bill.
Harrington is not the sort to tout simplistic solutions to complex problems. He argues both for more assertion of state standards and genuine local control of "the apparatus of policing."
"There's a place for state government to provide oversight. It's a place we've long been in need of. We've had a bit of a checkerboard of policies and procedures, and that has not served us well," Harrington said. "The state has a vested interest in the keeping of the peace. That means the state has a place at the table. But it's a table that has to include local authorities that have a real voice."
How to strike that balance? Another of the House bill's architects, Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, points to a successful example of blended state and local governance that Minnesota knows well. Consider the way public education is governed and the state's licensure of teachers, he said. Teachers know that through their licenses, they are held to a high standard of conduct, and if they fail to meet that standard, their licenses can and will be revoked.
"It's a regular but radical notion that our state [police] license should mean something, like it does for our teachers," Frazier said at the April 28 briefing as he pleaded with the Republican state Senate majority to agree.
With barely more than a week remaining in the regular session, one other bit of state history bears noting. Through more than 160 years of statehood, getting governance right has been both parties' goal. Getting policing right in 2021 ought to be no different.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.