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Special Session II: Police reform achieved

Kevin Featherly//July 22, 2020//

Special Session II: Police reform achieved

Kevin Featherly//July 22, 2020//

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It wasn’t exactly what advocates demanded after George Floyd’s death. But a police reform bill passed overnight Tuesday reaches deep into the ways that Minnesota police are trained and held to account if they kill someone or otherwise act badly on the job.

House File 1 is a bill that will help police departments better deal with mentally ill and autistic Minnesotans. It will force them to consider human rights and personal dignity before using violence. It will halt reimbursements and educational credits for warrior-style training and will — mostly, but not entirely — prevent the police use of chokeholds.

It does not, as Republicans insisted, hand prosecutorial authority of deadly-force encounters over to the state attorney general and does not restore the vote to felons fresh out of prison. Nor does it include police department defunding — an omission Republicans touted as a victory, though Democrats never attempted to include it.

But it does add new citizen members to the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board, the state’s police-licensing authority. And it establishes a new Bureau of Criminal Apprehension office, dedicated specifically to investigating killings by police.

“This is not the bill that I wanted for us to have today,” said House Public Safety Chair Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, during his closing floor speech Monday night.  “But I can say this in full confidence that this is a good bill.”

Over in the upper chamber, Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, agreed. He called the bill the “product of compromise” and “some very good conversation” about the future of Minnesota policing.

Police reform was the dominant theme of both 2020 special sessions, absorbing so much energy that other major legislation — notably a $1.9 billion bonding-and-tax omnibus package — failed to cut a path around it to passage. The mid-June special session quietly adjourned with the sides far apart on police reform and negotiations stalled.

Mariani said the compromise bill passed this week was the product of eight days of intensive talks that lasted anywhere from 12 to 16 hours each.

The public was not privy to those secretive discussions.


Big margins

The House passed the bill quickly and resoundingly, 102-29, on Monday night. Even the addition of several amendments — passed by voice votes with apparently pre-arranged buy-in from the Senate — didn’t slow its momentum.

One amendment came from Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, a key DFL negotiator during the just-concluded special session. She is chair of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, the group responsible for assembling the DFL House’s first — and far more comprehensive — bill, written shortly after Floyd’s death.

Moran’s amendment establishes, in writing, the reform’s legislative intent. Its first paragraph is perhaps its key passage.

“The authority to use deadly force, conferred on peace officers by this section, is a critical responsibility that shall be exercised judiciously and with respect for human rights and dignity and for the sanctity of every human life,” the amendment reads.

“The legislature further finds and declares that every person has a right to be free from excessive use of force by officers acting under color of law,” it adds.

Another successful late amendment extended the deadline for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force, which was slated to issue its final report this year. But the COVID-19 crisis had stalled its work. The amendment gives the group until June 30, 2021, to wrap up.

Only one amendment, from Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, failed to make the cut. It piggybacked on a failed June measure from Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, to create a Civil Unrest Investigatory Commission. Nash’s commission would have been led by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea.

Though the idea had merit, Mariani told Nash during floor debate, it was never discussed during negotiations and he worried its inclusion might torpedo the bill.

But House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, encouraged its inclusion, telling members that GOP senate leaders communicated to him that the provision was acceptable to the upper chamber. It was left out, anyway.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, noted it had been part of June’s PROMISE Act, which would have spent money rebuilding neighborhoods racked by violence after Floyd’s death. But that legislation did not move in the second special session, and Winkler said it would be inappropriate to pass its investigatory-commission portion now.


What’s included

The final bill, separated into 30 sections, boils down to 10 GOP Senate reforms and five DFL House reforms, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka told WCCO Radio on Tuesday morning. The Senate passed it without amendments just hours before Gazelka’s radio interview. The vote there was 60-7.

Among provisions included are:

  • A prohibition on warrior-style training. Hyper-aggressive police training has often been blamed for the death of Philando Castile. The legislation bans departments from paying for warrior-style training and officers cannot earn required education credits by taking it. But it does not prevent unions or officers themselves from paying for it. Still, Limmer said, given the measure’s clear intent, lawmakers “would frown upon” cops or unions if they do that.
  • The chokehold restrictions fall short of an outright ban. While Limmer said the final language hews closer to House than Senate preferences, it still gives officers leeway to use chokeholds to save their own or someone else’s life. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, a former sheriff and a key Republican on the bill’s negotiating team, was among those who insisted last month on preserving chokeholds as a last-ditch measure of self-protection.
  • Use of force reform will result in a rewrite of the POST Board’s model use-of-force policy, which law enforcement agencies are required to adopt. The policy must “recognize and respect the sanctity and value of all human life.” It also must include an officer’s duty to intervene in and report on any incidents they witness that involve excessive force.
  • Investigatory reform will take the form of a new BCA unit dedicated to investigating police deadly force encounters. The measure expires in four years.
  • The bill creates a new critical incident stress management team and new peer counseling guidelines for cops who suffer mentally from their job experiences. This provision largely, but not entirely, bars information collected during counseling to be used in criminal or civil proceedings. Police also will be required to take more training to deal with the mentally ill and autistic if the bill is signed. Separate parts of the bill create an anonymized database of officer-misconduct reports and require the POST Board to issue annual police-misconduct summaries.
  • Police residency reform amounts to a suggestion, not a mandate. The bill authorizes cities and counties to offer incentives that encourage police to live in the neighborhoods they patrol. But it’s unclear that it gives local jurisdictions any authority they don’t already have.
  • Arbitration reform is a major concession by GOP senators to House members. The Senate last month pitched a plan to put administrative law judges in charge of arbitration cases, if the sides clash on assigning a private mediator. As passed, the bill allows the governor to appoint a dedicated roster of six specially trained arbitrators to hear grievances; their decisions will be binding. The special process applies only to law enforcement, not other government workers.
  • The POST Board will have two new community members added, for a total of four citizen representatives on an expanded, 17-member governing board. Additionally, the bill creates new POST community relations advisory council made up of five law enforcement leaders, four legislative appointees and six community members. It will “assist the board in maintaining policies and regulating peace officers in a manner that ensures the protection of civil and human rights.”
  • Finally, the bill extends by two years an existing biennial allocation of $6 million for peace officer training.



On Tuesday morning, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, called the bill a first step toward transformational change. “It’s not nearly enough,” she said, “but it is a considerable step forward.”

That work will continue, she said. However, if the Legislature meets again in August, she doesn’t expect police reform to be a major topic. Senate Republicans, she said, have made it clear they have gone as far as they care to on the subject, at least until the regular legislative session convenes next year.

A third special session is likely, if not inevitable. Unless the pandemic suddenly disappears, the governor probably will extend his emergency powers by 30 more days in mid-August, automatically triggering another special session.

In his radio interview Tuesday, Gazelka lauded the police-reform compromise bill for containing “a number of good things” and enjoying “huge support” from lawmakers, police groups and other stakeholders. All of its key provisions were altered during intensive negotiations, he said.

“The bill we’ve agreed on this special session is based on common-sense reforms that Minnesotans, police officers and community leaders can support,” Limmer said, weighing in through a press release after the bill’s passage.

Gov. Tim Walz also chimed in with his own written statement.

“I look forward to signing into law these critical reforms to strengthen transparency and community oversight of policing, ban chokeholds and ‘warrior training,’ expand autism awareness and mental health de-escalation training for officers, and change the circumstances under which officers can use deadly force,” he said. “These changes are long overdue.”

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