Walz, Democrats make last ditch plea for police reform in legislative session’s final days

Republican-controlled Senate, aligned with police lobby, unlikely to agree

By: - May 4, 2021 7:58 am

A demonstrator holds a sign with a Minneapolis Police Department logo modiifed to say Muderous Police, at a protest in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 4, 2020. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

For the second time in less than a year, a high stakes debate over police reform has erupted at the State Capitol, with emerging progressive lawmakers from racially diverse communities pushing for changes their constituents are demanding.   

After the recent police killing of Daunte Wright and guilty verdict in the murder trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, Gov. Tim Walz said he would “burn political capital” to make it happen in the legislative session’s remaining days.

But significant obstacles remain for the Legislature to pass any police reform this year. 

Police enjoy strong support from Republicans, who vehemently disagree with Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers who say the problem is systemic racism that leads to the disproportionate use of force against Black Minnesotans with little accountability.

Former GOP state Rep. Nick Zerwas of Elk River, who comes from a police family, said in a recent interview that the relatively recent partisan polarization around police reflects the increased willingness of Democratic politicians to publicly criticize police officers. He specifically cited former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s assertion in 2016 that Philando Castile would be alive if he were white.

“It set in motion a scenario in which the alignment really kind of snapped in that moment and changed pretty aggressively,” Zerwas recalled. 

Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, however, says her colleagues blocking change have not had contact with abusive policing to know what it’s like: “When you have not been encountered with racism and inequities, when you have been a part of a privileged population where laws and policies and practices align to your values and who you are, it’s hard for you to see beyond that,” she said.

The outcome will have major ramifications. The Legislature is positioned to make the biggest impact on how police officers are trained and do their jobs like conduct traffic stops; how their unions are organized and contracts are negotiated; how they are disciplined and what rights they have. 

House Democrats have approved a public safety bill that included a series of law enforcement changes — including a ban on police traffic stops for equipment violations and other minor issues — in an effort to reduce racial profiling and the interactions between police and Black men that have ended in tragedy. 

Wright was stopped for driving with expired tabs, while Castile, who was killed by a St. Anthony police officer in 2016, was stopped for driving with a broken tail light. 

The House public safety budget bill also includes a number of changes intended to increase police accountability, including civilian oversight boards, and quick access to body camera footage for families of those killed by police. 

Republicans who control the state Senate, who declined interview requests, are unlikely to agree to state-level changes, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in a recent news conference. 

During a recent House floor debate, Republicans said the DFL proposals are anti-police even during a time of rising crime. “This bill is contrary to public safety and it is hostile to law enforcement,” said Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, a former Clearwater County sheriff’s deputy, during an impassioned defense of police.

Gazelka cited a U.S. Department of Justice pattern-and-practice investigation into the Minneapolis police department as a reason to wait. He has also called for patience to see the effect of police reform changes made last year in the wake of Floyd’s murder. 

“We passed a significant bill that some people said was not far enough but other people said it was too far,” Gazelka said.  

The highly coveted police endorsement

Gazelka is also considered a top GOP contender to take on Walz in next year’s governor’s race, and the police lobby’s endorsement will be a key prize for Republican candidates.

Republicans are eager to own the law-and-order mantle, while the police lobby has found a home with Republicans. 

For years, Democrats eagerly sought the endorsement of police unions, hoping to shed the soft-on-crime label that dogged them into the 1990s. Police unions, meanwhile, though perhaps culturally more at home with Republicans, sought Democrats’ help with pay and especially retirement benefits of public sector unions. 

As a result, Minnesota police long enjoyed strong, bipartisan support at the Capitol. The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA), the largest association for law enforcement officers representing rank-and-file officers, used to endorse Democratic candidates. In 2010, they helped propel Dayton into office. The Minneapolis police union also endorsed him that year

Close embrace of police and Republicans

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 and increasing numbers of lawmakers from diverse communities concerned about police brutality has changed the landscape. 

Chauvin’s murder of Floyd led to progressive calls for police “abolition,” spawning the “defund the police” movement that Minneapolis city council members signed on to.

The slogan proved to be a potent attack line for Republicans to wield against Democrats, one that has continued into the current legislative session. 

“Clearly, in the last election, there was a particular part of the law enforcement community, really the rank-and-file, that did pull their support from a number of DFLers and were active in communicating that in races that we lost and races that we came pretty damn near to losing,” said state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, the House Public Safety Committee chair. 

The MPPOA last fall pulled its endorsement from some DFL candidates after Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, made incendiary comments at the Hugo home of former Minneapolis police union leader Bob Kroll and his wife, WCCO TV reporter Liz Collin. Thompson and Black Lives Matter activists demonstrated at their home, beating piñata effigies of the pair and yelling about burning the city down. Thompson later apologized. 

The police association demanded House Democrats condemn Thompson’s actions, and pulled some endorsements. After the election, they later forced the caucus to cancel a fundraiser for new members that included Thompson. 

A spokeswoman for the MPPOA declined to make its executive director, Brian Peters, available for an interview after he made remarks in a WCCO Radio interview that suggested Wright bore some responsibility for his death because he resisted arrest and tried to get back into his car. 

The spokeswoman said Peters has been in close touch in recent weeks with both GOP and DFL legislative leaders as the debate moves forward.

With the marriage between Democrats and the police at its worst point in recent history, police are turning to Senate Republicans to serve as a firewall. 

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents the largest companies in Minnesota, said his group plans to press for the Senate to consider many of the left-over measures from last year’s debate on police reform. 

Weaver, who served as chief of staff to former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, suggested that many of the new proposals emerging this session need more vetting. 

State Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, one of the Legislature’s few Black legislators, says the Senate GOP resistance and disconnect from the community is reflective of the caucus’s demographic makeup. 

“You look at the Republican Senate, just the reality is — and this is not meant to disparage anyone — but it’s mostly white, and the individual leadership are mostly middle-aged white men,” Frazier said. “They don’t have the perspective of the communities that have been harmed. They’re so far removed from these day-to-day harms that have been done to these communities and they cannot they cannot walk in their shoes.”

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