Compromise public safety bill with limited police reforms prompts pushback from progressives

Members of the POCI Caucus say they intend to amend the public safety bill with additional reform measures

By: - June 28, 2021 9:12 pm

State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, criticized Senate Republicans for not agreeing to more stringent police reform measures during a press conference on June 28, 2021. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

Progressive lawmakers are pushing back against a bipartisan public safety budget agreement struck over the weekend by legislative leadership and Gov. Tim Walz, saying the legislation is inadequate to protect the lives of Black Minnesotans from deadly use-of-force by police. 

On Saturday, leaders of the Democratic-controlled House and GOP-majority Senate announced a deal on one of the most contentious budget bills of the session, agreeing to a $2.6 billion budget that contains a series of policy changes. They include regulating the use of no-knock warrants, civil asset forfeiture reforms and improving a statewide police misconduct database to create an early warning system for problem officers.

But progressive House lawmakers said the legislation does not go far enough.  

“It’s time for the Senate majority to get serious about defending the constitutional rights of each and every human being in Minnesota and that includes Black men and women,” said state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, and chair of the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee. 

Mariani and other members of the People of Color and Indigenous legislative caucus said Monday they plan to amend the public safety budget bill during a Tuesday floor debate, potentially upending the agreement struck between House and Senate legislative leadership.

The conflict comes at a crucial moment: The Legislature must pass a budget bill before Wednesday at midnight with Walz’s signature, or prisons, courts and state law enforcement agencies lose their funding. 

The high stakes debate also illustrates the sharp divide between the two parties on criminal justice issues, but also among Democrats, who are debating among themselves the timing and forcefulness of their push for policing reform. They face the likelihood of sustained attacks from Republicans on the crime issue after a year of rising violence, with suburban lawmakers especially susceptible in what is expected to be a difficult off-year election.  

Walz, the first term Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor going into a reelection campaign, used his executive power Monday to augment some provisions of the bill, but progressive were unmoved. 

The public safety bill as currently written has some key priorities for the POCI caucus, including a state office to focus on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and a task force to study the issue of missing and murdered Black women. Additionally, public safety dispatch operators would refer mental health related calls to a specialized crisis team rather than calling in police, in an effort to reduce volatile situations for which police are often not well trained; according to a Washington Post database of police killings, more than 1,300 shootings since 2014 involved someone police said was experiencing a mental health crisis. 

Still, the final agreement did not contain a number of police accountability measures some Democrats and activists have pushed for, including banning pretextual stops for minor traffic violations like the one that preceded the Brooklyn Center police killing of Daunte Wright in April.

Senate Republicans also rejected the creation of civilian oversight boards, and a new law that would allow families of police shooting victims to promptly view any body-cam footage. A push to ban officers from associating with white supremacy groups also faltered in negotiations, as well as a proposal to end qualified immunity for officers, which is a legal term preventing police from being personally liable in wrongful death claims. 

Senate Republicans argued against limiting so-called pretextual stops, saying it would remove a tool for police to make cities safer, asserting traffic stops can lead to seizures of illegal guns and thus prevent homicides.  

State Sen. Bill Ingebrigsten, R-Alexandria, a former Douglas County sheriff, rejected the notion that Black motorists are disproportionately pulled over — despite evidence that happens in Minnesota. 

“I’m really tired of hearing that because you’re Black, you’re getting pulled over,” he said. “That’s not even part of my thought process, and I think we should quit that because it’s dividing us horribly.”

A Star Tribune analysis last summer found that Minneapolis police disproportionately pull over Black drivers in majority-white Minneapolis.  

According to the analysis, Black and East African drivers accounted for 78% of police searches that started as stops for moving or equipment violations from June 2019 through May 2020. White drivers, in comparison, made up 12% of searches during the same period, even though they were more likely to wind up with contraband when searched. 

The searches resulted in a lopsided and disproportionate number of arrests: For Black and East African drivers, 26% of searches resulted in arrest, compared with 41% of whites, according to the data.

Given the timeline, the final days of the special legislative session are shaping up to be dramatic. 

The plan by some House Democrats to amend the public safety bill and send that bill to the Senate would delay passage of the bill, potentially threatening funding for state courts, prisons and state law enforcement agencies if it is not passed by midnight Wednesday. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, and state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, defended the public safety bill negotiated with House Democrats, saying it will help keep communities safe. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said that if the House amends the public safety bill, the Senate would remove those amendments and pass the bill that had been agreed on over the weekend. 

Gazelka also argued that Republicans were stymied on many of their own public safety proposals and forced to accept a compromise. Gazelka said his caucus lobbied to delay enactment of new deadly force regulations adopted last summer, as well as banning the “doxxing” of police officers.

Facing criticism from activists and at least one House DFL lawmaker, Walz on Monday announced executive action that would affect statewide law enforcement agencies. Walz will require agencies like the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and Minnesota State Patrol to allow families of police shooting victims to view body-cam footage within five days. 

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-MN, asked Walz to veto the public safety bill if it does not include the police reforms sought by Democrats and allied activists. Walz said he would not, arguing that a veto would be politically polarizing. 

Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, also called on the Legislature to act more robustly on police reform. Minnesota, she said, is “the epicenter of an international movement demanding an end to police violence, and yet we cannot get a single meaningful police accountability measure across the finish line.”

Activist-turned-lawmaker, state Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, had earlier criticized Walz, saying he was only paying “lip service” to the issue of police reform, and alleging Walz lacked “testicular fortitude” by not pressing for more stringent police accountability measures. 

Asked about Thompson’s remarks, Walz pointed out that Thompson was close friends with Philando Castile, who was killed during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights in 2016 by a St. Anthony police officer. He said he understood and shared Thompson’s frustration. 

The House is expected to debate and vote on the public safety bill on Tuesday, a day before the June 30 deadline for a new two-year budget to be enacted.

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