A difficult, protracted debate Tuesday put racial tensions at center stage as the Minnesota Senate passed five “police accountability” bills, which members of color said fell far short of addressing deep injustices that resurfaced with George Floyd’s death.
“If this is the bill that we are going to pass in the Senate and act like we did something in remembrance of a wrong,” Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, said at one point Tuesday, “then this is my response: No. This is not good enough.”
Republicans expressed surprise that DFLers failed to appreciate their willingness to move forward with meaningful, targeted police reforms. “I am actually shocked at the resistance to these bills,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.
The five bills heard Tuesday were the Senate’s modest reply to three DFL House special session omnibus bills that collectively contain 19 police reforms. The sweeping House package includes everything from a rewrite of the police use-of-force doctrine and a ban on warrior-style training to new forms of civilian oversight and a requirement that the attorney general handle all deadly-force police prosecutions.
The five Senate bills were rolled out during an information-only hearing earlier Tuesday, where testimony was taken but no amendments accepted. Four bills deal with things like police training funds, use-of-force data reporting, police trauma counseling and stronger background checks for police department job applicants.
A fifth bill has a provision mirroring the House use-of-force doctrine rewrite, which requires police to regard the sanctity of a human life before deploying deadly force. But the Senate bill puts that language inside a Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board administrative statute, where it orders departments to rewrite use-of-force policies.
The House version rewrites the criminal code. Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, the House Judiciary chair who also serves on the Public Safety committee, said Wednesday that he was disappointed to learn about the Senate language’s statutory placement, which he said was unexpected.
“You can either have a law that says something is legal or not, or you can have a policy that’s either enforced or not enforced,” Lesch said. “It’s a huge distinction.” Of the Senate version, Lesch said, “It’s a paper tiger, essentially.”
An attempt by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, to substitute the House language into the Senate bill was rejected.
Both chambers also ban police choke holds; but, again, there are crucial differences. Unlike the House’s outright ban, the Senate preserves the tactic as a life-saving last resort. Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, called that “the great loophole” for continued abuse and tried to delete it with a floor amendment. He eventually gave up the effort when a Republican amendment was successfully overlaid on his changes.
The Senate’s five People of Color and Indigenous Caucus members dominated the DFL side of Tuesday’s debate. They grew increasingly upset as Republicans rejected most of their floor amendments, usually on procedural germaneness grounds.
Franzen, a native Puerto Rican, called the parliamentary moves “a disgrace” and “an injustice through the process.”
“Stop shutting us down,” she said. “We may be wearing masks, but we are not going to be quiet.”
DFLers also complained that Republican bill authors never sought their input, even though their constituents are the ones most impacted by police violence. In one striking exchange, Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, polled all senators of color on the floor, asking if any had been consulted. All said no.
“Senator,” she said to Gazelka, “I would like to ask if our opinion and the work that we do here actually matters to you?”
She also asked Gazelka about a statement she said Gazelka made in a newspaper editorial, in which he suggested he had engaged her caucus about the GOP proposals. Gazelka said his published comments weren’t referring to legislators but to their constituents, with whom he said he had personally visited.
“I did go to inner-city Minneapolis and St. Paul five or six times,” he said. “Because I wanted to talk to the people—everyday people, all colors—to get their perspectives. When I think about people of color/indigenous, I’m thinking about the people down there.”
Gazelka said he was surprised during those visits at the small number of people who had ever spoken with their local senators. “They were grateful that we were coming down there to listen to what the people were asking,” Gazelka said.
As tensions grew, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, the Judiciary chair who authored two of the five bills, expressed concern that the Senate is “broken.”
“Minnesota is hurting and, quite honestly, I think the Minnesota Senate is hurting,” Limmer said. “The way we have treated each other today I have never seen before, in the years I’ve been here.”
Hayden responded with a potently personal speech on race relations. “I’d suggest, Senator Limmer, this country is broken and it has been broken for a very long time from my eyes,” he began.
Hayden said he and his constituents are weary of the injustices they face. “I’m tired and the people I represent are tired—they’re tired of asking permission just to get the basic rights that they need,” Hayden said
“I’m tired,” he seethed through an angry smile. “Sick and tired of asking people each every day: If you have a law enforcement community that’s supposed to protect me, that they don’t put a boot on my neck; that they don’t choke me; that they don’t humiliate me; that they don’t stop me for no reason; that they don’t ask me what am I doing here, why am I driving that car? I’m tired of having my heart race every time a law enforcement person gets behind me, because I have been socialized to be afraid of them.”
DFLers complained that the bills offered Tuesday fall far short of community expectations for “transformational change.” But some Republicans questioned whether the changes Democrats want aren’t really “inner city” problems that should be solved by local officials, rather than imposed statewide.
In arguing against a DFL amendment to ban warrior-style training, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, suggested such training is actually defensive, not offensive, and that any problems associated with it appear limited to urban centers. “Maybe this is a Minneapolis problem,” said Ingebrigtsen, a former county sheriff. “It isn’t a problem that I’ve had out in my area.”
Speaking Wednesday by phone, Franzen said she “absolutely” agrees with Limmer that the Senate is broken, but not because members spoke impertinently to one another.
For her, the process breaks when members of color speak and others don’t listen. She noted that Limmer at one point said he never “got the memo” that any Senate members were part of the POCI Caucus. The group has existed for three years.
“They are not paying attention,” she said. “They’re not paying attention to the moment.”
She said she worries that the GOP Senate is responding to the George Floyd crisis with its head in the sand. “You’re not being a leader and you’re going to go down in history as someone who kicked the can down the road,” Franzen said. “There will be more killings, in my opinion.”
During a press conference Tuesday, held while the Senate was still debating its bills, Gov. Tim Walz was more measured but expressed much the same belief.
“That is not the fundamental change that the community is asking us for,” he said of the five Senate bills. “I’m not hearing that they are going to be satisfied with that.”
Limmer could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
Late Wednesday, the House package, with further amendments, cleared Ways and Means and was sent to the floor. That debate was expected to begin at 5 p.m. Thursday, after this edition’s deadline.
Walz said Tuesday that Democrats probably support some of the “low-hanging fruit” included in the GOP bills. But he warned that his party won’t budge on its priorities. “We are not going to compromise our values around communities that have been traumatized for so long,” he said.
David Schultz, the Hamline University political science instructor, said the situation that played out on the Senate floor Tuesday night is unique, even though sharp fault lines between legislative factions are not new.
There have long been ideological divisions between Democrats/Republicans and rural/urban members for years, he said. But in the 35 years he has observed the Minnesota Legislature, he said, he has not seen divides form along racial lines quite as they did Tuesday.
“This is the first time we’ve had multiple divisions all lining up at the same time to create the problem that we are seeing right now,” he said. “This is just layering the complexity of division.”
The special session is expected to wrap up later Friday.