ST. PAUL — More than a month after the graphic killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, lawmakers in the divided Minnesota Legislature remained at odds this week about how to heed calls for criminal justice reform.
At stake are changes to the way police officers around the state train, operate and are dealt with following deadly force encounters. And the proposals could also alter voting rights for felons who've completed their time behind bars and which state bodies have the authority to investigate police officers.
While leaders in the state's divided Legislature last month appeared ready to take on the task as well as several other pieces of unresolved business from the regular legislative session, they walked away from a one-week special session with no compromise and nothing to show for their efforts.
And partisan division again threatened to tank efforts to pass the reforms in the state at the epicenter of the growing movement seeking racial equity in policing. On Wednesday, July 1, the Minnesota Senate reset its focus on a handful of hearings investigating state and local response to the looting and arson fires that burned more than 1,000 Twin Cities businesses following Floyd's death.
Meanwhile, Democrats, including members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, attempted to harness community support for a series of policing law changes and they held hearings remotely and in the district of a key GOP senator.
Floyd was killed May 25 when ex-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly eight minutes as Floyd said he couldn't breathe and pleaded for help. A bystander video of the incident generated calls for policing law changes in Minnesota and beyond.
Republican leaders in the Minnesota Senate on Wednesday said lawmakers would continue pursuing reforms, but they signaled that they might wait until ongoing investigation into the incidents wraps up.
“We would be wiser to wait until those investigations played out so we would have better information,” Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said. "This entire situation cannot be solved by simply talking about one topic such as police reform. There is a whole lot more going on here than just the Minneapolis police department."
But Democrats who've been pressing for the passage of a criminal justice package said lawmakers should listen to Minnesotans and act quickly.
"George Floyd had every reason to expect he should have been protected by his own government," Rep. Carlos Mariani, D-St. Paul, during a meeting in Maple Grove. "There has to be, there must be a better way of holding people accountable."
Areas of agreement, continued disagreement
The landscape lawmakers left when they abruptly adjourned the last special session leaves areas of agreement between both sides of the divided Legislature. But divisions remain, as well.
In June, the Minnesota Senate pulled a handful of proposals put forth by the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus in the House and passed them off the floor. In theory, the measures could pass both chambers as they have backing from the majority parties in both chambers.
The bills would boost mental health and de-escalation training, set up mechanisms for reporting instances of deadly force and ban chokeholds unless in situations where an officer is isolated, has lost a weapon or faces a life or death situation. The plans also prioritize the sanctity of life in police model policies and require officers to step in if they see peers using excessive force.
In the final hours of the special legislative session, both Senate Republicans and House Democrats put out compromise provisions aimed to get closer to a deal. The Senate opted to change the process for reviewing contested officer discipline cases by sending the decisions to an administrative law judge. The cases are currently reviewed by an arbitrator. And those individuals are chosen by police departments and unions.
House Democrats had proposed choosing a new pool of arbitrators selected by the governor to review the cases.
The Senate adjourned before the two sides could come back together to reach an agreement. Senators didn't publicly respond to a late-night counteroffer from Democrats that would have dropped plans to allow felons to vote after they complete their prison sentences and move the jurisdiction of deadly force incidents from county prosecutors to the attorney general.
Both provisions had been non-starters for the Senate GOP. And with those off the table, potential negotiations looked like they could start anew in another special session or behind the scenes.
DFL lawmakers this week urged the Senate to incorporate more POCI Caucus proposals into their bill, like banning warrior training for police officers and giving community members a more prominent role in policing and police accountability.
“The sanctity of life is important and if we can begin to have officers look at their work with that sanctity so that they go home and the person they encounter (can) go home, that gives a ticket to all to go home,” Rep. Rena Moran, D-St. Paul, said. “That’s not the military-style engagement of believing that I’m going to kill or be killed.”
With an election just months away, the issue could get pushed down the line and used as a campaign point. And Republicans and Democrats both gave an indication that they could use it as such.
House Democrats on Wednesday evening held a town hall meeting on criminal justice reform in Maple Grove, where the chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, lives. And Senate Republicans continued to emphasize the role of Democratic leaders at the state level and in Minneapolis who oversaw the police department where several officers became involved in instances of deadly force.
“Those issues are pretty much centered in that department and not the rest of the state, those issues that should’ve been dealt with internally were not done,” Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, said. “We don’t need to be force-feeding (local departments) things that they have to do."
A review of police-involved deadly-force encounters in Minnesota found that 60% of those reported in the last five years occurred in Greater Minnesota.