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Amid pain and protest, House public safety panel begins consideration of sweeping changes to policing

House Photography file photo

The Memorial Day death of George Floyd at the knee of a former Minneapolis police officer continues to spark outrage locally and nationally.

For many people, especially in communities of color, the incident is the catalyst to forge ahead on policing reforms they’ve sought for years.

“The people of Minnesota have demanded that we take action,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) said Friday. “ … The most important thing is to listen to the voices of the people who are most affected by police brutality.”

That began in earnest Saturday as the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform and Policy Division heard from nearly 30 people, including attorneys, mayors, police chiefs and activists, during a remote informational hearing that lasted more than seven hours.

Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), who chairs the division, urged members to look at the big picture. “Individual policy change is good, but we owe it to this moment in history to also look for larger systems change. These bills are only a start, but let’s start. Let’s lean in, let’s listen and let’s be bold.”

“I hope the values of Minnesota, of a One Minnesota, can stand and show through in this moment in time. We all have to be responsible,” added Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul).

The division plans to take amendments and vote on the proposals Monday. 

“There is no reason that members who are supposed to be protected and served are afraid and brutalized … and it’s allowed to continue to happen year after year, decade after decade, century after century,” said Protea Toles, whose brother Ira, was shot, but not killed, in 2008 by Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis cop charged with second-degree murder in Floyd’s death.

“In any other industry, life and death is taken seriously and it needs to be taken seriously in our police departments,” Toles said.

“The Minnesota Police Accountability Package” comes from proposals offered by the 13 House members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus and other legislators. Centered in three areas — Reforming Accountability, Reclaiming Community Oversight and Reimagining Public Safety — the proposal seeks greater police oversight and accountability and investments in community resources.


Reimagining Public Safety

In introducing the Mariani-sponsored SSHF2, Rep. Aisha Gomez (DFL-Mpls) quoted the police chief of Dallas, David Brown, who said in 2016, “Every societal failure, we put it on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let’s give it to the cops. … Schools fail, give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

So SSHF2 is designed to reimagine what policing would look like. A Gomez-sponsored provision would start a state Office of Community-Led Public Safety Coordination, which would lean upon community groups to establish what’s needed to keep their streets safe. It would also create grants for teams of “co-responders” in which law enforcement officers and behavioral health specialists work together.

House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division 6/13/20

Mental health is a key focus of SSHF2, not only of the people police officers encounter, but of the officers themselves, with expanded peer counseling for officers being part of a provision sponsored by Rep. Mohamud Noor (DFL-Mpls).

But the main mental health component in the bill is centered upon training. A provision sponsored by Rep. Ruth Richardson (DFL-Mendota Heights) would establish standards for crisis intervention and mental illness crisis training for peace officers.

“One in four people who are killed by police are having a mental health issue,” Richardson said.

Another Richardson-sponsored section would require the development and implementation of autism training for peace officers. It was that provision that inspired some of the most powerful testimony of the hearing, that of Amity Dimock, the mother of Kobe Heisler, who was killed last August by Brooklyn Center police. Dimock attributed the officers’ aggression toward her son to a lack of understanding of autism.

“We know Minnesota has the second-highest rate of autism in the country,” she said through tears. “Why don’t we have a system for training police how to deal with them? People with mental illnesses or autism are not more violent. The worst they do is hurt themselves.”

Also testifying was Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, who was killed by an officer in Falcon Heights during a 2016 traffic stop.

“I’ve been talking for four years,” she said, “and we have beautiful blueprints, but nobody’s building anything. George (Floyd) was the straw that broke the camel’s back. … I support these bills with every fiber of my soul.”

The bill also includes a Moran-sponsored provision that would restore an individual’s right to vote upon release from incarceration, or upon sentencing if no incarceration is imposed. Current state law requires the completion of probation before a citizen’s right to vote is restored.  

Among the other provisions included in SSHF2:

  • it would require officers whose use of force results in injury or death to file a report to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and would stipulate that information given by the officer to a stress management counselor is inadmissible as evidence (Noor); and
  • would establish a critical incident review process for peace officer-involved shootings (Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein (DFL-New Brighton)).


Reclaiming Community Oversight Act

Provisions in this area aim to improve law enforcement oversight and change training and reporting requirements.

Moran sponsors a bill that she plans to amend to ban any kind of action by a peace officer that purposely restricts an airway or blood flow, such as a chokehold; a bill sponsored by Richardson would prohibit warrior training; and Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL-Roseville) sponsors a bill that would require a peace officer to intercede when another officer is using excessive force and report the incident to supervisors.

Becker-Finn said many departments, and 81 of 87 county sheriff’s departments, already have a policy to address the issue. “We want to make it clear to officers that the expectation is that you step in in a situation where something unsafe is happening. It’s about empowering officers to make sure they’re able to do the right thing in difficult scenarios.”

A bill sponsored by Rep. Hodan Hassan (DFL-Mpls) would permit Minneapolis and St. Paul to establish residency requirements for peace officers as a condition of employment.

Mayor Mike Elliott said none of Brooklyn Center’s police officers live in the community, including the chief. He urged the residency requirement be expanded to other areas, maybe statewide. ”It is especially important that you have officers live in the city when you have cultural components that are important to policing.” He said Brooklyn Center’s population is 57% people of color.

Other bills in this area would:

Reforming Accountability Act

Better clarifying when police are able to use deadly force — and who should investigate and prosecute those encounters when misconduct is alleged — is the basis for the third package of bills division members considered. 

Advocates for change say current standards that govern when an officer can use deadly force are too subjective and need to be clearly defined so police better understand when deadly force is justified and prosecutors are better able to bring charges when it isn’t.

A bill sponsored by Moran seeks three main modifications.

  • It would establish that use of deadly force in the line of duty is only justified when an officer reasonably believes it is necessary to protect the officer from “imminent” death. Current law uses the term “apparent” death. It would also add a provision that an officer must reasonably believe a person will cause death or great bodily harm to another person unless immediately apprehended, in order for deadly force to be used;
  • It would establish “legislative intent” that an officer’s authority to use deadly force must be used judiciously and with respect for human rights and the sanctity of every human life; and
  • It would prohibit an officer from using deadly force against someone based on the danger that person poses to themselves, if the officer reasonably believes that person does not pose an imminent threat or great bodily harm to the officer or others.

Moran said the implicit biases everyone has play a role, and have deadly consequences during police encounters, especially when decisions are made in stressful situations.

“When these biases are carried out in the community by law enforcement, we’ve seen lives lost as a result,” she said.

Her bill seeks to check those biases with an objective standard that values all human life.

“Unfortunately, the current laws fall short because it relies too heavily on subjective judgement of what might be a threat,” Moran said. “This makes prosecuting and gaining a conviction extremely difficult.”

Although many in law enforcement believe more training or better application of current standards are enough to bring about the necessary reforms, she believes more fundamental changes are needed.

“The pain, the frustration, the trauma, the righteous anger our communities have experienced over and over highlights how the status quo simply isn’t working,” Moran said.

A bill sponsored by Becker-Finn, which would give the attorney general’s office sole jurisdiction to prosecute cases when peace officers are alleged to have caused an officer-involved death, received a good deal of discussion.

Such cases are often prosecuted by county attorneys, but Becker-Finn said the close working relationship those offices have with the law enforcement personnel they are called to investigate can lead to the perception of bias, even though none may exist. She said her bill would give the public more trust the process is fair.

Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake) said she’s heard “incredible concern” from county attorneys in Greater Minnesota who oppose turning investigations over to the attorney general because it is a partisan office that has been controlled by the DFL for many years.  

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom told division members that the Minnesota County Attorneys Association has voted to support Becker-Finn’s bill, but the support was not unanimous.

Other proposed legislation in the act includes:

  • a bill sponsored by Noor that would eliminate the need for cash bail for those charged with misdemeanor offenses, other than domestic assault and some driving while intoxicated violations; and
  • a bill sponsored by Mariani that would establish, and fund, an Independent Use of Force Investigations Unit within the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to investigate officer-involved deaths.

Senate update

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-East Gull Lake) and Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove) said the Senate plans to pass a law enforcement accountability package of five separate bills that includes ideas from the POCI caucus. Limmer chairs the public safety committee.

At a Friday news conference, Gazelka spoke of passing some police accountability bills in the short-term — he said the Senate will adjourn June 19 — while continuing to work on long-term solutions that can be addressed when the 2021 session begins in January.

[MORE: Watch the news conference]

Among those he noted are: banning the use of chokeholds and neck restraints, required reporting of the deadly use of force and providing more resources for officers to seek emotional help after an incident.

Toward the end of Saturday’s House hearing, O’Neill said that she’d been hearing from Senate Republicans as they watched the hearing.

“The Senate is texting me and understands that, if it takes more than a week, then it takes more than a week,” she said.

Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL-Mpls) called the effort “disingenuous,” while House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley) termed the approach “lazy and last-minute.”

“This something that has been building for a long time and the moment to actually move legislation and engage is now. But to think you can come out at the last minute with a fairly weak proposal and say that we’re going to do a little bit of work for a week and then go home is not what this moment requires,” Winkler said.

Gazelka said Senate Republicans oppose any efforts for a city to dismantle or defund its police department. “There are always a few bad apples that must be plucked out.”

— House Public Information Services’ Mike Cook, Jon Mohr and Rob Hubbard contributed to this story.


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