Gov. Tim Walz implored a divided Minnesota Legislature Thursday to pass a sweeping package of police reforms before wrapping up a special session overshadowed by the police killing of George Floyd, the unarmed black man whose death sparked weeks of protests around the world.
Recalling that Friday is Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, the DFL governor warned that the world will be watching if lawmakers adjourn without passing any legislation addressing police accountability.
“If destiny and history is not raining down on Minnesota today and tomorrow, I don’t know what is,” Walz said as he faced Friday’s planned adjournment deadline set by Senate Republican leaders. “The image of us and the Senate walking away from systemic change on Juneteenth adds to the legacy of what the rest of the world is looking at here. It is unacceptable.”
Walz’s remarks came as House Democrats were poised to pass roughly 20 police reform bills, including measures to tighten use-of-force standards, increase oversight of police discipline and encourage community-based alternatives to traditional law enforcement.
Working into Thursday night, DFL lawmakers also planned to advance bills that would ban “warrior-style” police training, eliminate cash bail for misdemeanor offenses, and spend $15 million on community interventions.
The Republican-led Senate passed a more modest package of policing bills earlier this week that direct a state licensing and standards agency to write policies banning chokeholds and neck restraints, such as those used on Floyd. The GOP reforms also would mandate more background checks for law enforcement employees, data collection on use of deadly force and training on implicit bias for officers. They also would require officers to intervene in cases of excessive force.
But Republicans have balked at DFL proposals to restore felons’ voting rights while they are on probation and to put Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office in charge of prosecuting officer-involved deaths.
While Democrats say the GOP law enforcement reforms don’t go far enough, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, noted that he’d heard little opposition to the measures contained in the Senate-passed reform package.
“In a short special session, you have to know that you run out of time,” Gazelka said. “Why don’t we do these things we agree with? Why don’t we do all of the criminal justice reforms that we agree with and not jam each other? Why don’t we do the federal spending for local government aid that we all agree with? Why don’t we do the bonding bill that we all agree with?”
The issue of arbitration rights for disciplined police officers also remained unresolved Thursday. Minneapolis police Chief Medaria Arradondo, Mayor Jacob Frey and other civic leaders called Thursday on state lawmakers to overhaul a arbitration system that they say too often allows officers accused of “egregious” misconduct to get their jobs back.
Under proposed DFL legislation, which is backed by the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, arbitrators would no longer be allowed to “reverse or reduce” discipline meted out in such cases. But the GOP package in the Senate does not contain that provision.
Friday’s expected adjournment would end a special session triggered by the extension of emergency powers Walz invoked to fight the pandemic. Republicans pressed to end the emergency powers last week but lacked the votes in the DFL-controlled House.
Although the special session was convened for the pandemic, it was overtaken by anger over Floyd’s death and at times emotional debate over abuses of police power. The racial tensions have, at moments, spilled out into the ranks of the Legislature, with members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus accusing Senate Republicans of not consulting with them on any of their policing proposals.
“The lack of understanding from our perspective, our lived experiences, it’s shameful,” said Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis. He also said he was frustrated by comments he heard in a House hearing in which other members suggested Minneapolis and St. Paul should start their own online fundraiser to repair damage caused by looting and riots.
Going into the final day of the session, Democrats continued to press for a broader agreement from Republicans to increase accountability in cases of deadly police force.
“When I saw the senators’ bills, I was insulted,” said Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul. “And so many, many more from the community and across the world are insulted, that that’s what the Senate put forth. That has no accountability, no systemic change.”
Gazelka said there’s still time to come to a deal, and there are conversations happening behind the scenes to find common ground before the weekend. But he warned: If the DFL-controlled House pushes proposals that Senate Republicans don’t agree with, nothing at all could happen.
Still, Walz’s peacetime emergency is set to expire July 14, meaning lawmakers could be returning again to St. Paul next month to review Walz’s powers and continue the debate on police reform.
Staff writer Libor Jany contributed to this report.