Gov. Tim Walz on police and protest

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Gov. Tim Walz in the Minnesota State Capitol Monday, May 3, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Gov. Tim Walz promised more police reform after Daunte Wright was killed, but he’ll have to beg and barter to get it through a divided Legislature.

The clock is ticking on the legislative session, with the DFL governor and the Legislature negotiating a two-year, $52 billion budget. Swaths of government will shut down without an agreement by June 30.

Walz is entering a crucial period of his tenure. Days after the Reformer Radio interview, he announced a plan to end pandemic-related restrictions on large gatherings and a route to ending the statewide mask mandate if more Minnesotans get vaccinated. He’s also expected to announce a reelection bid in the coming months.

In the interview he explains what police reform he wants passed and reflects on the state’s largest response to protests since last year’s civil unrest — what went wrong in Brooklyn Center and what’s his plan for the next time police kill someone.

And, nearly a year after George Floyd was killed by police, forcing the national reckoning on racial inequities, Walz confronts disparities that have only grown wider during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Below is the transcript of the Reformer’s interview with Walz.

MAX NESTERAK: Well first, Governor, isn’t the inaugural Reformer Radio episode the place to announce your reelection campaign?

GOV. TIM WALZ: It probably should be. I mean, it hits all those audiences across there. But I’m not quite prepared to do that. I just want to get us to a better spot on COVID — kind of a wrap spot or at least a long-term maintenance spot on COVID, then I think it makes sense. And I think we get out of a legislative session, we get that wrapped up, then we’re in a better spot to make a decision.

Fair enough. So there’s been a lot of talk about racial equity across the country because of events that happened here in Minnesota. And yet the pandemic has disproportionately hit people of color in terms of health, wealth and education. Are we going to come out of this year of so called racial reckoning with greater inequity than when we went in?

If we don’t do things right, we will. I think as it stands right now, I think that would probably be an honest statement across the country.

The good news is, while Minnesota has the gap that people know about — the larger gap — we all start at a higher place. And so what that means is, is that children came out better in Minnesota than any place else in the country, and that would mean Black children still came out better even though that gap is there. But with that being said, yes, the potential is certainly there.

What COVID did was expose all those inequities: access to health care, access to housing. We told people to go home, stay in their house. Well, you don’t have a house, you don’t have a job, you lose your home. That was one of the reasons one of the very first executive orders we made was around the moratorium knowing that it was both a community health decision but also a stability for those families.

With that being said, I remain very optimistic. I think, Minnesota being the epicenter of this, I wished it wouldn’t have happened here but wishing things away does not fix the problem — the systemic issues around the need for police reforms, but the systemic issues around racism were here.

I think it’s more shocking in a progressive state. And I think it shocked a lot of Minnesotans to realize that their neighbors worry when their children drive to soccer practice. And around racial equity, if the flashpoint was the murder of George Floyd, that simply opened up what I think was coming.

I think you’ve probably heard it as reporters, something you might not have heard even 10 years ago, people acknowledging that we had a pretty big gap. You heard the education gap first, then you heard the homeownership gap, and then you heard it all down the line. And I think that acknowledgement was kind of for a while, Minnesotans kind of thought, well, we did our work, we acknowledge that we have this problem. I think what COVID did was say, well, now what are you gonna do about it? What are we going to do about it?

So what are you going to do about it? What in the budget do you think will address the racial inequities we have in Minnesota? 

Well, I would say first of all, the immediate threat is some of the just common sense moves around police reforms. And I think the police would agree on this. No one should lose their life for a traffic stop. And the work and the hassles around pretextual stops for — you know, you don’t want people doing things dangerously but — you know, a Christmas tree air freshener or whatever it may be, or even a warrant, if these are misdemeanor warrants. I think you take away some of that threat by acknowledging that there’s things we can do together.

And then we get at the heart of this. If we’re dealing with these societal and systemic issues and racial inequities, if the police have to deal with all of that, we’ve lost this race. We know that Black mothers die in childbirth at a much higher rate than white mothers, so prenatally it starts before that.

Here’s why I’m so optimistic about this: The American Rescue Plan that came to deal with COVID was geared just for that. Yes, it was an economic package to make sure that small businesses — which we’ve done in Minnesota, which the federal government has done, albeit too slowly — but those Rescue Act dollars that are out there are meant to do things like provide summer school opportunities for communities hardest hit. They’re meant to provide housing stability for communities hardest hit. They’re meant to go to small businesses, who have the hardest hit.

That money is transformational. And so I’m making the case that to close that gap — to make up for some of those inequities, and to start addressing how we get to a point where we are in Minnesota, where we have this large gap in homeownership, we have this large gap in generational wealth, and we have George Floyd and Daunte Wright being killed simply because of the color of their skin in many cases — we can start to address that in a way that wasn’t possible before.

So I remain very optimistic around the American Rescue Plan dollars.

I want to talk about your executive powers. When you were in Congress in 2008, you were a critic of the Bush administration’s use of executive power. What would Tim Walz 2021 say to Tim Walz 2008 about too much power being in the hands of the executive branch?

I think you can always be worried about that. Now, I would ask, do you know specifically the executive orders I was concerned with in the Bush administration?

It was about surveillance with — 

The Patriot Act. Yeah. And I would say I used my executive powers to put a moratorium on a public health crisis. Now, with that being said, just in all fairness, I do think there’s a real concern about the balance of power in a democracy. And I think emergencies can be used inappropriately to extend those powers. I think that is fair.

Now, I would say this, the way of the checks and balances on that are the court systems to make sure that these things — and I will say, knock on wood, we have a perfect record of not extending beyond that.

But I would also say that trying to find a way to collectively work together. And I think the one that’s really hard in this space is I’m trying to strike compromise around a public health crisis that, for example, the Mayo Clinic says masks reduce the spread of COVID and should be worn inside. But Republican senators say we don’t want to do it.

I think it’s mitigations, from masks to capacities and bars, that most bothers them. I don’t think that they’re opposed to the emergency powers are what triggers FEMA being at the State Fair site vaccinating people. The emergency powers are what triggers the federal government giving us $41 million a month in supplemental nutrition aid. I think they want those things to stay in. But I think they want to limit the business requirements.

So I would be interested if this would be a discussion about emergency powers if there was agreement around COVID in general.

You said you’ll burn your political capital on police reform. What are the most crucial policy items needed?

I think showing movement in general that we think would have a short term fix. I would argue, around the pretextual stops. You know, just figuring out a way that we don’t have to do those. Because whether it’s Philando Castillo or whether it’s Daunte Wright, these are situations with Black men, who are put in situations that by all accounts are relatively minor and could be handled in a different way that escalate into a life being taken.

And I think the police would agree if there’s a way that we can do that. I’ve seen this. You know, if you don’t pay the toll on any of these freeways in Illinois, they find a way to send that to you, no matter where you’re at. They took the picture of your car and the license plate.

There’s things that I think we need to think about. I think mental health responses that not everything requires an armed police response and how we do it.

This isn’t about defunding police. This is about rethinking public safety together. And I think some of those things that are in these bills make sense. And then I again, I don’t think you can ever go wrong with oversight, public oversight. We made some of these changes over at the POST board. And I’ll be the first to say, it shouldn’t be a hard lift, but if you’re associated with white supremist groups, you can’t be a police officer.

But we also, I think, need to hold ourselves accountable and have a uniform policy across the state that says, how are we going to respond to legitimate first amendment assembly? And there’s differences. How do we make sure that those confrontations — whether it be a non lethal use of force by the police or a brick going over the fence — how do we collectively, together work out what the rules are around first amendment assemblies?

And those are things that I think that they can codify in the legislative session that I think police are going to say, “Sure, we’re fine with that.”

What are you willing to give up in order to pass these reforms?

Well, I’m not negotiating till we get to the table. What I’m not willing to give up is I’m not willing to give up those investments in the health of Minnesotans and the recovery from COVID. I’m certainly willing to talk about how we do that, what do we look at, what about revenues over the long run. But these reforms need to happen.

When I was at the Brooklyn Center (police station) during the protests, most of the conflict was concentrated in a very small area, right up against the fence. You had police and protesters lined up almost like they were going to war with one another. You’d see a brick or water bottle get thrown, and then that would be met with rubber bullets or tear gas or other munitions. But then, you know, several hundred feet away, people are just hanging out. A block away, the Dollar (Tree) is getting looted. There’s got to be a better strategy than that and what is it? 

For everybody. For everybody. And when I say that, for everybody, the responsibility, we couldn’t have a situation that we saw in May and June of last year, where we lost hundreds of businesses, many of them, you know, owned by communities of color.

But we also can’t have a situation where people are legitimately bringing up things that need to change, and I agree with them on that need to change and they have every right to be able to express that.

And I think that fence being a euphemism for where we’re at that seemed impenetrable on each side. We need to know who’s on each side of the fence. And my job is to represent folks on both sides of that fence to figure it out.

But I can tell you that I think, and again, I think if it’s an example of what we can do, the second fence was put up to get them away from that confrontational thing, to move folks back. You weren’t going to lose the building from this. And that second fence then allowed folks to be able to protest without thinking that was going to happen.

But something else that was incredibly helpful: community. Community activists stood there and said, “Don’t throw a brick, but by all means, yell and say we need change. And Daunte Wright needs justice.”

And I think when you started to see police put up the second barrier, de-escalate from that. You saw those that were out there legitimately protesting and using their First Amendment rights advocate, ‘don’t throw bricks at them and step back,’ you saw that situation de-escalate. You saw a sense of now maybe we can talk about what needs to happen and needs to change.

And I’m looking for a uniform policy to make that happen.

What about, you know, setting officers outside the station, shoulder-to-shoulder, just waiting to get a water bottle thrown at them? On Sunday, there were demonstrators outside the Brooklyn Center police station (and) hardly a police officer outside the station. It ended peacefully. Was that a mistake to put so many officers out, lined up right in front of the police station? 

Well, again, if the question was, why weren’t they lined up last May at the Third Precinct to stop that? So it’s that situation. The one thing is for me is, is in both these situations, we didn’t lose any life. We had minor injuries. Can we get better all the way around? Absolutely.

And I think that was the reason that the POST Board to ask, let’s start looking at a model policy. Let’s start understanding that. I again, the responsibility is is when people are out there is not to second guess people who are in authority.

But when you see this, that authority is an interesting thing. Like the folks who I have direct responsibility over would be the State Patrol, the National Guard. But then you have County Sheriffs. You’ve got city police. How do they collectively have a uniform policy across the state and I would like to see maybe across the country.

Certainly I’m not naive. Some folks are there to cause mischief or to cause harm or to destroy property. But the vast majority are out there because Daunte Wright was shot. That’s why they were there.

So when law enforcement decided to use tear gas — some of which went into people’s homes, homes where children were — did they get your consent?

They have the consent by me being the person who’s the governor. I don’t control the local law enforcement. I’ve never been, you know, that’s not where I’m at. I think-

But this was an Operation Safety Net response, right? 

Not in the first days. We were there to support afterwards. I think this issue around the use of these munitions, that goes back to why I’m asking the POST board, when are the situations correct? What would happen if you use them or don’t use them?

And again, I would ask all of us to think about this — and it’s why in an urban planning situation, you don’t see a lot of police departments in, you know, neighborhoods in residential neighborhoods — how do we get to that point where the situation brought this protest to that spot?

I don’t think it would be out of hand for anyone to think that the intent was to burn that building down because that was what happened in May. Now, one of the things with this model policy is to think about — and we did I think, whether it was food support or housing — is what kind of support can we provide for people who were, in this case, totally just bystanders to the situation?

And that’s the response that I brought to it in those first days. I said, we need to make sure there’s housing vouchers for these folks. We need to make sure that we’re getting people out and we need to make sure there’s counselors down there because there’s children listening to this that really should be in there going to bed and studying. And I think for all of us involved, we’ve got to reach somewhat of a little bit of a detente on that.

You said Minnesota law enforcement had failed in its treatment of journalists that week of the Brooklyn Center protests. You didn’t say that about its treatment of protesters. And so I’m wondering if you think Operation Safety Net succeeded in how it responded to demonstrators. 

What you saw was starting the Monday that the jury went into, was sequestered. That was all along how Operation Safety Net was going to work. They would come in once the jury went to that — to Phase Three. They would stay there till after the verdict was read, and they would de-escalate. That’s what you saw in Minneapolis.

The situation with Daunte Wright was a separate issue but was coinciding with those folks being ready. That was nine months of planning. What I would say is Operation Safety Net, in Minneapolis, that we did not have buildings burn. We did not have the looting. We had peaceful assembly. We had a verdict. People went home, and we de-escalated. So I think in that regard, it did work the way it is.

Now again, what I kept saying is we can’t live like this. We can’t live like putting up barriers every time that we have a situation. We can’t live like calling the National Guard every time we have a trial. We’ve got to find a new way of doing that.

So Operation Safety Net went smoothly in Minneapolis for the Chauvin verdict. Outside the Brooklyn Center police station, Operation Safety Net was in effect. What were the mistakes made in relation to how it responded to demonstrators? 

We’ll see when that comes out. We’ll see — there’s an after-action that will be done on it. You’ll find out. We learned from May and June, again. And we would be having this conversation if the Brooklyn Center Police Department burned down that we didn’t have enough folks out there. But we learned from that. Now the question is did you learn enough or there was an overreaction? Potentially. And when that after-action report comes in, then we will adjust accordingly.

The next time a police officer in Minnesota kills someone — do you bring back Operation Safety Net? Do you call in the National Guard right away? What’s your plan?

No, I think each of these situations warrant their own response. I would tell you, that the joint coordination is really hard, and if they haven’t done it. And last May and June, expectations of the city …  And again, I would ask people, they watch — whether it be Portland or somewhere else — it’s very rare where the state steps in.

One of the things that we did here was to try and provide the support to the communities. It’s their decisions. They’re making some of these decisions early on, and they have to. But the state has the resources to be able to support. And that as I said, might be food aid. It might be housing aid from Minnesota Housing, those types of things. But they have to be in conjunction with what the mood of the local community is. One of the things that we’ve been pressing, and is starting to happen, is just educating communities of what the capabilities of the state are. How do we do this.

Now that the situation around George Floyd was unique. It was a trial unseen in terms of press interest, global interest. We knew when it was going to be, and we knew the tensions and the emotions that were around it. So we planned accordingly to that.

If this situation happens in Mankato or Marshall or wherever, it will be different. We’ll listen to those local folks.

How do you want to end?

Hopeful. Hopeful. A challenging year, a hard year.

Things that I have to tell you — I, running for governor, that you take the hand that’s dealt to you. But the idea of a global pandemic — and trying to tell people this is, that COVID is much more contagious and much deadlier than polio. This in a historical context is unprecedented. Layer on to that a reckoning around race and police. I think what I find most hopeful about this is how Minnesotans have responded on both fronts with a willingness to change.

They responded around COVID incredibly well. People are alive because of the way Minnesotans reacted.

And I think George Floyd, the rest of the country is looking and …  This is an interesting … Rev. (Jesse) Jackson says, ‘There’s a lot more lightness than darkness in Minnesota.’ This is a state that helps people and cares about people. He said, ‘You’ve got issues to work on.’ But the rest of the country believes this gives us a golden opportunity to use Minnesota as the Proving Ground that we can make these changes. Can you actually close a wealth gap? Can you actually do police reforms that have police and activists together?

So I have to say, after this year … I used to say this about Congress, I say it now: Don’t ever say it can’t get worse. Because you don’t know. You don’t know.

I mean, my God. Again, I have to tell you. I mean, my heart sinks and breaks when you have a gun at Plymouth. And I mean, I can’t … I feel like we dodged a lightning bolt. And then this week, I called a family in Marshall, who lost their first grader to COVID and talked to that family. That’s the humanity that’s happening right now.

But I think the overarching thing if any state can tackle this, it’s probably us. And I feel like that it’s not by chance. I talked about “One Minnesota” that may seem a long ways away right now, but I think it’s a shared goal.

IN THIS EPISODE

Tim Walz

Minnesota Governor

Tim Walz is the 41st governor of Minnesota. A member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, he was elected governor in 2018 after serving six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Before running for office, Walz was a high school teacher, football coach and soldier in the Army National Guard.