‘We have failed’: Walz admits mistakes in law enforcement treatment of media

By: - April 19, 2021 9:03 pm

Gov. Tim Walz speaks at a news conference on April 19, 2021, as the jury begins deliberations in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Facing a burgeoning political crisis over his administration’s aggressive response to protests of police killings, Gov. Tim Walz acknowledged law enforcement failed to protect press freedoms during a news conference Monday.

“We have failed this week,” Walz said, referring to attacks on journalists. “It’s unacceptable.”

Joined by the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Walz offered few specifics on how he plans to prevent a repeat of the past week, in which law enforcement used tear gas, rubber bullets and mace on people protesting the police killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, as well as journalists covering the demonstrations.

Operation Safety Net, a coalition of law enforcement agencies formed to prevent rioting and looting during the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, has come under intense scrutiny for their handling of daily demonstrations outside the Brooklyn Center police station.

Scores of demonstrators were arrested at protests over the past week, with some being held without bail for a day or longer. The use of rubber bullets and chemical irritants escalated tensions with demonstrators while also endangering families living in the apartments near the police station.

Journalists were detained, sprayed with mace and assaulted by law enforcement even after a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order barring state troopers from doing so.

More than two dozen news organizations sent a letter to Walz on Saturday detailing assaults on journalists, including an Asian-American CNN producer who was arrested and asked if she spoke English, and a Black photographer working for the New York Times who said he was repeatedly hit by officers and his camera almost destroyed.

Walz, a first term governor who spent a dozen years in Congress, faces a restive progressive base in his own Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Many activists are decrying his administration’s aggressive tactics and National Guard mobilization. The Stonewall caucus of the DFL, a group representing LGBTQ concerns, joined with Minnesota Young DFL in a no-confidence vote Sunday.

Walz called the news conference with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter shortly after jurors began their deliberations in the trial of Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd.

Walz was asked if he believed law enforcement escalated tensions with demonstrators, and if so, what a different strategy for dealing with them might be. He replied: “I think it’s a bit of a chicken and an egg.”

“I will certainly acknowledge that there are times, and I witnessed it at times this week, where it seems that that did make the crowd a little bit — then we also see the provocation of folks throwing things,” Walz said. “None of this is good. We have to figure out a way and it’s responsible on all of us.”

Police spray mace as demonstrators shield themselves behind several umbrellas at the Brooklyn Center Police Department for the fourth night of protests Wednesday, April 14, 2021 after former officer Kimberly Potter shot and killed Daunte Wright during a traffic stop. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Walz also couldn’t say if the law enforcement officers who are alleged to have abused journalists and demonstrators had been identified or disciplined.

“Right now, we’re asking (law enforcement agencies) to do the research and the investigation of what needs to be done to find out what the situation was,” Walz said.

Minneapolis has yet to finalize discipline of a single officer for misconduct during the civil unrest after Floyd’s killing last year even as it faces numerous lawsuits for police brutality. Protesters and journalists suffered injuries from rubber bullets including traumatic brain injuries and — in at least two cases — the loss of an eye. Video also shows police macing demonstrators seemingly without provocation including from the driver’s window of a moving squad car.

The tone of the press conference felt closer to a series of stump speeches, with each detailing the various persistent racial disparities across the state and promising to act.

“I’m not calling for quiet. And I’m not asking anyone to stay calm,” Carter said. “We should be distraught and alarmed and disgusted and demanding an all-in urgent national response with the critical understanding that we can best stop protests over police killings of unarmed Black men by stopping police killings of unarmed Black men.”

The leaders touched on a slew of potential policy changes like weakening police union contracts, eliminating arbitration that allows some officers to win their jobs back after termination and ending arbitrary traffic stops by police.

They pleaded with people to remain peaceful — not to throw objects at law enforcement, loot businesses or cause other destruction seen in the wake of the killing of first Floyd and then Wright.

Even with thousands of National Guard soldiers, state troopers, sheriff’s deputies and city police officers on the ground across the Twin Cities metro, Walz requested the Legislature approve another $9 million in funding for out-of-state law enforcement support. About 128 state troopers from Nebraska and Ohio have agreed to standby and assist in civil unrest.

Earlier in the afternoon, law enforcement leaders with Operation Safety Net held a news conference with leaders from various community groups to reiterate their plea for demonstrators to remain peaceful once a verdict in the Chauvin trial is announced.

“We want justice and we want peace,” said Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson. “We know we have to do better. What happened the last few days is not something we wanted. But we had to act to keep the city safe… And I will never back down from anybody when it comes to keeping this county safe.”

The week of demonstrations following Wright’s killing has been less destructive than after the Memorial Day killing of Floyd, when whole blocks of Minneapolis burned.

Still, the violent clashes with demonstrators has led some civil rights leaders and over 40 progressive political groups to call for Operation Safety Net to be disbanded, saying it’s inflamed tensions and retraumatized people already reeling from the police killings of Floyd, Wright and others.

“Operation Safety Net has not offered safety to Black residents of the Twin Cities, to protesters and those standing in solidarity with us,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, civil rights attorney and founder of the Racial Justice Network. “Operation Safety Net has acted as a reign of terror.”

Law enforcement found allies among other community and church leaders, who joined them at their news conference on Monday.

“Throwing bottles against law enforcement does not represent us.” said Rev. Ian Bethel of New Beginnings Baptist Church. “As we have accountability, transformation, consequences and reform with law enforcement, we expect the same from our community.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.