DFL says police reform is urgent; Republicans say new legislation unlikely this year

By: - April 29, 2021 1:02 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.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, indicated major police policy changes were unlikely to pass before the end of the legislative session next month, even as Gov. Tim Walz and Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislative leaders said Thursday policing reform is among their top priorities. 

Gazelka, speaking at a news conference Thursday, said he was satisfied with the progress the state had made on policing since the killing of George Floyd last May, pointing to the guilty verdict in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and the police accountability laws the Legislature passed last year. 

“We need to look at what we did last July, as the most comprehensive police accountability bill in modern history, and let’s see that work,” Gazelka said. 

Gazelka’s opposition sets up conflict as he and Walz enter final negotiations on a two-year, $52 billion budget. 

The killing of another Black man at the hands of police earlier this month — Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center — renewed Democrats’ drive to do more to rein in police and increase accountability. Walz held what he called a “bipartisan” news conference on Thursday with DFL lawmakers and one Republican — Rep. Tim Miller of Prinsburg — to pressure Senate Republicans to hold hearings on police accountability and take up legislation already passed by the House. 

Following the guilty verdict and a week of protests in Brooklyn Center, Walz said he would “burn his political capital” on passing public safety legislation. 

“We were promised hearings and they didn’t happen,” Walz said, referring to a statement from Gazelka after the Wright killing. 

Gazelka, state government’s top elected Republican, last week said those discussions could happen as part of conference negotiations, which DFL decried as not good enough in part because it would prevent most Black, Native and Latino legislators from participating. Conference committees are a small group of lawmakers from both chambers who meet to iron out differences in legislation, but their negotiations often wind up behind closed doors. 

Walz faces pressure from the progressive wing of his party after Operation Safety Net — the coalition of law enforcement agencies assembled for the Chauvin trial — used aggressive tactics to suppress protests in Brooklyn Center following Wright’s killing. A handful of progressives voted against a budget bill Tuesday to pay for some of the security costs, decrying its lack of police accountability measures. 

The DFL-controlled Minnesota House passed a different public safety budget bill without Republican support earlier this month that had several new police accountability policy provisions. They include limiting police officers from stopping or detaining drivers solely for vehicle equipment violations like expired tabs, which led to Wright being pulled over and ultimately killed. 

Gazelka expressed doubt that Wright’s death could have been prevented with legislation and also said they would not pass any laws that stop police from intervening or stopping crime. 

“I’m not sure that any legislation that we passed last year or that we would look at this year would have stopped situations like Daunte Wright’s death, where the officer thought that they were using their taser and they were using their gun,” Gazelka said. 

The House DFL bill also includes a ban on no-knock search warrants; requires law enforcement agencies to release body camera recordings of deadly incidents to the deceased’s family within 48 hours; allows local governments to establish civilian oversight councils with the power to impose discipline on police; and prohibits police officers from affiliating with white supremacist groups. 

Gazelka said they would not take up any proposals that were debated but not agreed to in last year’s police reform bill. He also said they would not address what’s known as qualified immunity, which protects officers from being sued personally in brutality lawsuits. 

Gazelka said his top priorities for the end of sessions are passing a budget, ending Walz’s emergency powers in place since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and deciding how to spend about $2.6 billion in federal relief money yet to be appropriated. 

The Legislature and governor must also agree to a two-year budget before session ends, and while some DFL lawmakers said they don’t want to pass a budget without new police laws, Walz said it was too early for him to say. 

“I don’t draw the red lines before we even start because I think it makes it hard,” Walz said. “I’ll tell you what Minnesota doesn’t want. They don’t want the nonsense of not doing anything and digging in.”  

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, spoke Thursday about the proposals in personal terms, saying he fears for his own adolescent sons’ safety. 

“There’s a real threat that if we don’t do something … Myles … and Jaylen … will never ever get a chance to live out their full potential. That’s the importance of now,” said Champion, who is Black. 

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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.