Police reform efforts collapse in divided Minnesota Legislature

Tribune Content Agency

MINNEAPOLIS — In the days since the world saw Minneapolis police kill George Floyd, expectations were high that the death of an unarmed black man would compel decisive action by the Minnesota Legislature.

But a week of emotional hearings and tense behind-the-scenes negotiations on police reform produced nothing more than an impasse between Gov. Tim Walz, the House Democratic majority and Republicans who control the Minnesota Senate.

Lawmakers left St. Paul at sunup Saturday morning without a deal on criminal justice reform, ending a long night of frustration and weeks of hope for finding some common ground.

The divisions on display in the final hours of the special session trickled into other parts of the legislative agenda as well, leaving unsettled a tentative deal to distribute $841 million in federal COVID-19 aid to counties and towns across Minnesota. Also left undone: a billion dollar-plus bonding package to finance public infrastructure projects throughout the state.

Party leaders set no timeline for resuming their work, though another extension of Walz’s emergency powers in the middle of July could bring lawmakers back to St. Paul for yet another special session. Walz was noncommittal about whether he might call the Legislature back before then.

Despite increasingly urgent appeals for action from activists and DFL legislators, Republicans suggested that more time was needed to complete the work.

“We are weeks and weeks away from the possibility of doing something with criminal justice reform,” Senate Majority Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said before the Senate adjourned around 6 a.m. “Done doesn’t mean we’re stopping working,” he told reporters late Friday night.

Democrats assailed their Republican colleagues for giving up without an agreement on police accountability, an issue that had overtaken a weeklong special session called to review Walz’s powers under the pandemic.

“It is unfortunate that the Senate decided that one week was all that we could muster in order to begin to address these issues, because quite frankly they are much bigger than a week,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

Hundreds of protesters who gathered at the Capitol on Friday — the Juneteenth celebration of the end of slavery — demanded passage of the DFL’s criminal justice package. It would add more officer training, boost community-led alternatives to policing, and raise the threshold for using deadly force from “apparent” to “imminent” threats to officers and others.

Republicans answered late Friday night with a package of reforms they said matched some of the DFL measures, including raising training standards and requiring officers to intervene if colleagues use excessive force. The two sides also appeared to inch closer to an agreement to change officers’ arbitration rights, which many police executives say keep them from dismissing bad cops.

“If they’re not interested in this, I don’t think personally that they will ever be interested in something we can agree to,” Gazelka said of a list of 11 criminal justice changes he said would be Republicans’ “final offer.”

The Senate’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus (POCI), which had played a central role in the DFL’s reform package, quickly rejected the slate of GOP plans.

“Nothing the Senate Republicans have offered will stop another Black person from being killed,” the POCI Caucus said in a statement. “There is no middle ground and there will be no compromise until our Black brothers and sisters receive redemption.”

As talks passed the midnight hour — accompanied by an eerie electrical outage in the Capitol — DFL leaders backed away from two key demands: voting rights for felons on probation, and shifting jurisdiction over cases of police deadly force from county attorneys to the state attorney general’s office now led by civil rights activist and former congressman Keith Ellison.

However, they countered that GOP Senators needed to add other pieces of their plan, including banning “warrior-style” training, allowing cities to impose residency requirements on their police officers, and creating a state community-led public safety office. As the impasse continued, lawmakers remained largely out of sight into the early hours of the morning.

Meanwhile Gazelka said he thought they had an agreement on federal CARES Act funding that has been idle in state coffers, along with $58 million in additional spending. Democrats had been pushing for far more state spending. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said after midnight that they were “pretty darn close” on the federal aid deal.

But Republicans accused the DFL of reneging on a CARES Act deal. “I know that the governor was again involved in trying to defeat things for Minnesota. I know that, and that’s very disappointing,” Gazelka said as he called to adjourn without finishing the federal aid bill.

Some lawmakers held out hope for continued talks in the coming days and weeks. “I hope that this creates a pause for us to go back, reflect a little bit on the need to get the job done for the people of Minnesota,” Winkler said.

But with the battle lines seemingly drawn ahead of the November elections, Republicans and Democrats pushed the political blame back and forth as they came up short of a compromise.

Sen. Jeff Hayden, who represents the Minneapolis district where George Floyd was killed, said he will tell his constituents that, “There was no meaningful offer from the Senate Majority. I’m going to tell them that it doesn’t appear that they even care enough to read our proposals … We need to start telling the truth. Minnesotans need to know if folks care or not.”

Similar debates have been playing out across the nation, with other cities and states taking up changes to their policing standards.

Minnesota’s legislative discussions over the past week has extended beyond police reform. Activists and community members demanded lawmakers address racial inequities underlying police killings like Floyd’s, and are seeking aid for businesses damaged in the unrest that followed his death.

Lawmakers also came up short of a deal on business aid.


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