Police reforms represent a rare legislative ‘high-water mark’ for Minnesotans of color

DFL state Reps. Rena Moran and Carlos Mariani, both of St. Paul, led police reform negotiations on behalf of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/ Minnesota Reformer

Gov. Tim Walz signed into law a series of police reforms Thursday, capping a weeks-long effort at the Legislature to pass more stringent accountability measures for law enforcement following the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd. 

“These critical reforms are long overdue,” Walz said shortly before the ceremonial signing in St. Paul. Joining the governor were Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and members of the bicameral People of Color and Indigenous Caucus.

Among the changes now enacted are a ban on certain chokeholds; a ban on “warrior-style” training for police officers that critics say leads to overly aggressive policing; the establishment of a police-community relations council under the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training; and, residency incentives for police officers to live in the city they patrol. 

The police reforms enacted into law this week represent a major legislative victory for lawmakers from communities of color, who have long seen their agendas sidelined.

The passage of police reforms represents “a high-water mark” for lawmakers of the People of Color Indigenous Caucus, said state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, a 30-year veteran of the Minnesota House and among the few Latino legislators.

Roughly nine in 10 lawmakers are white, while 83% of Minnesotans are white. Just a few years ago, the Minnesota House included only one Black lawmaker out of 134.  

“We should expect our Legislature to continue to modernize in that respect,” Mariani said. “It’s going to become increasingly representative of the true diversity in our state, and with that, there’s going to be more issues on the table.”

Until Floyd’s May 25 death, lawmakers had been sparring over how to best support businesses and unemployed Minnesotans during the ongoing pandemic. The police killing forced them to prioritize a different yet related herculean task.

The pandemic and Floyd’s killing laid bare how Minnesota’s policies and institutions have failed people of color. Black and Indigenous Minnesotans in particular face disproportionate rates of infection and hospitalization from COVID-19, and higher likelihood of fatal encounters with police.

At the outset of his administration, Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan — the highest-ranking Native American woman holding executive office in the United States — prioritized addressing Minnesota’s vast racial disparities in income, education and health, long debated by DFL and GOP politicians alike with little progress.

Flanagan, a former state representative and founding member of the POCI caucus, said the presence of people of color at the statehouse are having an effect on which issues rise to the top of the legislative agenda. 

“The ability to speak directly to folks in leadership, like Speaker (Melissa) Hortman and Majority Leader (Paul) Gazelka —  that makes a difference,” Flanagan said. “When you have to look at someone personally and look them in the face and see the humanity of people who are impacted most, it changes things, and it changes dynamics.”

State Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, and Mariani largely led negotiations on behalf of the POCI caucus, reaching agreement with Senate GOP leaders who had previously resisted such expansive changes in a short legislative session. 

“This has been a long drawn out process for me that filled me with so many emotions,” said Moran, who is serving her fifth term and was once the only Black member of the House. “There were many times I didn’t have the patience, didn’t have the time, felt overwhelmed, but also stayed in this because it was truly important to me that two things happen: that we have a process to hold police accountable and through that process, prevent the police brutality of Black men and women.”

The legislation would also require police departments to submit an annual use of force report to lawmakers; mandate more de-escalation training, as well as training on handling people with autism or those experiencing a mental health crisis; create a duty to intervene for officers who witness a colleague using excessive force; and form a new grievance and arbitration procedure that calls for a rotating list of arbitrators who receive additional training in police related issues. 

The legislation has left many advocates dissatisfied. 

“The Legislature, in typical fashion, will pretend they have done something about the problem but this cannot be a ‘one and done,’” said Jaylani Hussein, Executive Director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in a statement. “We will be back at the full session next year with our slate of truly transformative legislation and we demand our bills be passed.”

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.