Twenty-five days after George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police, top lawmakers in Minnesota’s divided Legislature came together in a third floor Capitol conference room for their first substantive talks on police reform.
House Democrats, led by members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, had put forward a far-reaching list of proposals, from use-of-force restrictions to voting rights for felons. Senate Republicans, wary that the House plan went too far, countered with an offer that included some, but not all of the DFL ideas.
Offers traded throughout the long night went nowhere. At dawn the following morning, June 20, the Legislature adjourned at loggerheads, ending an inconclusive special session. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said the sides appeared “a session away” from agreement.
Fast forward to Thursday, and Gov. Tim Walz was signing a bill ushering in some of the most substantial changes to law enforcement and police accountability in a generation, sweeping legislation that cleared both chambers with broad bipartisan support. The new law, which takes effect Aug. 1, includes bans on chokeholds and warrior-style trainings, a duty for officers to intervene in misconduct, and changes to provide more data and independent oversight on police matters.
Walz called it “meaningful legislation that will impact our communities in a positive way” and “a critical step toward criminal justice reform.”
But for weeks, that step was far from certain, even amid waves of protests — some of them violent — spreading from Minneapolis to around the globe, following the viral video of Floyd’s death.
“It seemed pretty bleak,” said Rep. Rena Moran, a St. Paul Democrat at the center of the negotiations. “I thought that maybe we’d get one or two or three provisions.”
Reaching a hard-fought compromise brought together a diverse array of lawmakers and advocates, including law enforcement groups, the business community and the families of other Minnesotans killed over the years by police. Mounting public pressure, especially from legislators representing communities of color, and personal relationships between top lawmakers from opposing parties, finally pushed the deal over a finish line that many thought they’d never reach.
“So many people worked very hard, especially [POCI] Caucus members,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “It was a team effort all around. Many law enforcement groups, including police unions, came forward to compromise. We had broad support from the business community and from both sides of the aisle.”
Talks appeared to stall after the first special session. But around the July 4 weekend, with another special session coming up, more serious negotiations resumed.
Democrats and Republicans agreed on some elements of a package, but a gulf remained on key issues, including adding more citizen oversight to the state police licensing board. “We had partisan differences, we had philosophical differences, we had differences between different constituencies, all engaged on the sidelines to bring this matter at least up to a public discussion,” said Republican Sen. Warren Limmer, chairman of a judiciary committee. “There were times when we just had to go back to our corners and reconsider and think about each other’s thoughts and different ways to approach the goals.”
Over a month of stop-and-start negotiations, the two sides exchanged at least 16 offers, according to House Speaker Melissa Hortman. At one point, Moran said she feared disagreement over a single word in one provision — “apparent” — could torpedo the whole deal. But amid rising frustration, she sensed a genuine desire to reach a deal.
“We had a sense of the importance of this work, recognizing that we hear the moans and groans and the cries from the community across the state ... and across the country,” Moran said.
Personal relationships, including a strong working dynamic between Hortman and Gazelka, pushed legislators back to the table when negotiations became strained. Close work between Gazelka and Rep. Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul Democrat helping lead the DFL’s effort, added another layer of trust.
Major police groups were brought into the process, offering input and draft language. Moran and Brian Peters, a former Brooklyn Park police commander who heads the Minnesota Peace and Police Officers Association, developed a bond over months working together previously on a deadly force working group where they shared stories about their families and experiences.
“He understood where I was coming from as I talked about police officers, as I talked about the community, as I talked about the need for a stronger relationship,” Moran said. “Those things are not happening unless we are engaging each other, unless we are at the table with each other.”
The influence of the deadly force working group, led by Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and Attorney General Keith Ellison, went beyond building personal relationships. Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts, past president of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said the group’s discussions and recommendations “helped in the process to getting us to where we are today.”
The pressure wasn’t just coming from activists. It also was coming from the business community. In June, the Minnesota Business Partnership and more than 80 chief executives in the state sent a letter to lawmakers calling for police accountability legislation.
“The George Floyd killing really touched a nerve for everyone,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. “Their employees were telling them, enough is enough. We expect action, we expect you to lead on this.”
As the July special session neared, negotiators on both sides sensed they were getting closer. Hortman and Gazelka kept talks moving behind the scenes. But as they ironed out the details, internal hurdles within each majority caucus remained. Moran worked with the POCI Caucus and community activists who wanted to see even bigger changes. Convincing them to accept a pared-down package, she said, was “one of the hardest conversations I’ve probably had in my tenure.” Some Senate Republicans remained unconvinced that any changes were needed, Limmer said.
Friday, four weeks to the day after the first negotiation fizzled, Walz facilitated a conversation with Gazelka and the families of individuals who died after deadly encounters with police. Gazelka said the exchange, his second meeting with families, helped change his mind on some proposals.
“They make a compelling case for things that really, totally changed their lives,” he said.
“I heard a lot of precious tears from where they are coming from. You have to take every piece of an issue, and that was one piece.”
By 10 p.m. Monday, facing a self-imposed midnight deadline, the final language was rolled out and cleared by wide margins in both chambers.
“This is the beginning of the work that we set out to do,” Moran said. “It is not the end.”