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Melissa Hortman
At about 12:30 a.m. June 20, hours before the close of the year’s first special session, House Speaker Melissa Hortman described the DFL House’s counteroffer on police reform. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Dueling public safety hearings debate police, riots

Just as a joint Senate Transportation-Public Safety committee on July 1 was hearing about businesses damaged and looted during the Minneapolis riots of late May, the House Public Safety committee was meeting to revisit its police-reform agenda.

While the hearings played out predictably, they brought into sharp relief the competing narratives likely to play out—again—during a second summertime special session, which is expected to start Monday.

Democrats want to overhaul Minnesota’s entire policing system by eliminating warrior-style training, allowing cities to impose a residency requirement on cops, creating new citizen police-oversight councils and numerous other changes not found on the GOP agenda. Republicans want to focus on just one city—Minneapolis.

GOP and DFL lawmakers do want some of the same things. Both favor a statewide ban on choke holds—though Republicans favor a slightly more relaxed policy than Democrats. Both want to mandate reporting of police deadly-force encounters to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. And both favor peer counseling for stressed-out officers.

But on many DFL proposals, and on several elements of the slimmer GOP package, they part ways.

Republicans, for example, want to replenish a $6 million annual police training budget; Democrats have contended that simply finances the same aggressive training that they blame for the deaths of George Floyd, Philando Castile, Jamar Clark and other Black Minnesotans.

GOP lawmakers want enhanced background checks on police department job applicants; Democrats say that’s a fine idea—they even offered a standalone bill that that effect in the regular session. But better background checks for desk clerks and dispatchers won’t quell the turmoil in the streets, they say.

Perhaps the main difference is fundamental ideology, if not geography. Democrats want to portray their party the one capable of and dedicated to ending police violence, particularly against people of color, throughout the state. Republicans aim to pin George Floyd’s death and its destructive aftermath on the Minneapolis Police Department and its failed Democratic city leadership.

“Those issues are pretty much centered in that department and not the rest of the state,” said Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, the House Public Safety committee’s ranking Republican and former chair. “Issues that should have been dealt with internally were not done, showing the lack of leadership in that department and the lack of oversight by the City Council and the mayor.”

Democrats contend that 60% of police-involved killings over the past five years have happened in Greater Minnesota, and that the GOP’s approach is wrong.

“I think that there are core Minnesota values around treating people with respect and valuing life,” said House Public Safety Chair Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul. “That is not a partisan issue and not a geographic issue.”

‘I want to be safe

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter testified at the House hearing, where he was praised for his city’s handling of the late May disorder. He also was lauded for reforms his city has implemented, including a rewrite of the city’s police use-of-force and K9-deployment policies.

That led two Republicans, Johnson and Rep. Paul Novotny, R-Elk River—both former police officers—to question whether effective police reform is possible locally, without legislative intervention. “One size fits all does not work,” Johnson said. “We need to have guidelines, not statutes.”

Carter thanked the Republicans, but said he favors the statewide approach. “I am a young African American man who happens to drive sometimes beyond the limits of the city of St. Paul,” Carter said. “And when I do, I want to be safe.”

Last week’s House committee meeting also featured testimony from Peace Officer Standards and Training Board Chair Kelly McCarthy, Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty and Humphrey School of Public Affairs Professor Joe Soss.

McCarthy, who also is the Mendota Heights police chief, testified in favor of statewide statutory changes that could help police build “legitimacy and organizational capacity.”

She wasn’t specific on which reforms she favors, but hinted that a DFL proposal to rewrite the use-of-force statute to stress the sanctity of all citizens’ lives is among them. The GOP counterproposal adopts that language, but only as a model POST Board use-of-force policy, which departments would then have to individually adopt.

“There is no loss,” McCarthy said, “there is no downside to the Legislature acting out of an ethic of care for all citizens and for the good of hard-working peace officers doing their job right every day.”

Moriarty, Hennepin County’s chief public defender for the past six years, said it is the Legislature’s job to define values with respect to police treatment of Minnesotans.

She said public defenders often get to view police body-cam footage while defending clients. They often see police treating clients respectfully, she said. But they also see police who are often verbally abusive. Moriarty said she once heard a cop say, “Those people won’t follow my commands unless I use ‘F’ words.”

At times, she said, the abuse gets physical. “One of the things that many of the people in our office have said to me since George Floyd was murdered was that they see George Floyd all the time,” Moriarty said. “But the knee is removed in time.”

Moriarty called some elements of the House use-of-force policy “outstanding.” It assigns critical responsibility to police to use force judiciously, she said. But it also declares that everyone has a right to be free from excessive police force deployed under color of law, she said.

“To me, that says to peace officers it’s not just about deadly force,” Moriarty said. “It’s how you approach the day-to-day interactions with our clients.”

Soss described the research on civil disorder over the past half-century, saying that in large measure the findings agree with concerns expressed by community leaders, organizations and activists.

Over-policing of poor neighborhoods drains scant community wealth through the imposition fines and fees and through asset forfeitures, Soss said, much of which stems from “simply moving around in public.” Yet, he added, when under-served neighborhoods need police protection, police often fall short.

“This leads to people feeling that police are a controlling and threatening daily part of life, but that are far less than reliable as a source of personal security and public safety,” Soss said.

The House hearing, like the Senate’s, was information-only, and no formal actions were taken.

Afterward, House committee members traveled to Maple Grove—not coincidentally, the hometown of the GOP Senate Judiciary and Public Safety committee’s chair, Warren Limmer. There they addressed a small crowd and heard more testimony, both from locals and from activists who traveled to Maple Grove from other cities.

What’s next

With another special session looming, Mariani told committee members to expect more House Public Safety hearings devoted to policing. None, however, was scheduled at the time of this writing.

The joint Senate Transportation/Judiciary-Public Safety oversight committee, however, has its plans laid out. As this issue went to press, it had two meetings on the calendar.

At 10 a.m., on Wednesday, July 8 (after this edition’s deadline), the committee, led by Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, was scheduled to meet for an in-person hearing to examine “Capitol complex security.”

While the Capitol was undamaged during the riots that followed George Floyd’s death, protesters on June 10 pulled down a statue of Christopher Columbus. Republicans have called its destruction symptomatic of the lawlessness that destroyed parts of a 5-mile stretch of Minneapolis between May 26 and May 30.

At 10 a.m. on Thursday, July 9, the joint committee will hear about the state’s response to the riots. A more detailed agenda, including the names of speakers at both hearings, was not yet posted when this story went to press.

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