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House division discusses differences, common ground with Senate on policing proposals

A bouquet from an earlier vigil in memory of Minnesotans killed by police remained on the security fence around the State Capitol the evening of June 18 as, inside, House members debated a package of police reform bills. Photo by Andrew VonBank

During June’s eight-day special session, the House passed a package of about 20 proposals crafted in response to the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd while in police custody. The Senate passed five public-safety-related bills of its own and put forth some other proposals during negotiations on the session’s final night.

So why didn’t a deal get done on some compromise legislation?

That question was the catalyst for a two-hour informational hearing held by the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division Wednesday. The division looked at offers from each body, their similarities and differences, and had testifiers and members weigh in on some of their features.

To hear the division chair, Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), tell it, House negotiators had put forth a proposal when Senate members withdrew from the meeting and adjourned the session sine die early on the morning of June 20.

Where did the two sides agree? Nonpartisan House Research staff said that the House and Senate legislation had very similar provisions on:

  • reporting police-involved deadly force incidents to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension;
  • banning chokeholds by peace officers;
  • requiring training of officers on dealing with people with autism;
  • establishing standards for mental illness crisis training for officers;
  • expanding the Peace Officers Standards and Training board;
  • peer counseling for officers involved in critical incidents;
  • requiring an officer to intercede when another officer is using excessive force; and
  • updating policies on the use of force by peace officers, including emphasizing sanctity of life.

But the Senate also had other training provisions, offered the option of removing binding arbitration from the grievance process, and called for background checks on non-officer employees of law enforcement agencies.

House provisions that didn’t appear in the Senate proposals included:

  • a ban on “warrior-style training”;
  • lifting a ban on peace officer residency requirements;
  • extending civil statutes of limitations for actions by officers that result in death or sexual abuse; and
  • having an independent investigatory unit in the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension dealing with use of force investigations.

The House legislation would have also established:

  • an independent investigatory unit in the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension dealing with use of force investigations;
  • a law enforcement oversight council;
  • an officer-involved death review board in the Department of Public Safety;
  • a community-led public safety coordinator position in the Department of Public Safety; and
  • two grant programs for alternative responses.

Some Republicans took issue with a key supposition by some legislators as to the need for more statewide police policies: That 60% of the state’s instances of use of deadly force by peace officers in the past five years have happened in Greater Minnesota. It’s been quoted in previous hearings and floor debates that a task force on deadly-force encounters led by Attorney General Keith Ellison and Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington drew that conclusion, but some Republicans called for more documentation on the issue.

The head of the State’s POST board, Mendota Heights Police Chief Kelly McCarthy, spoke in favor of the House proposals, saying, “There’s a common phrase that people fear change, but what we really fear is the loss that change can bring. There is no loss involved in these proposals. If we fail to act, we are at risk of losing good officers who don’t feel represented.”

Hennepin County’s chief public defender, Mary Moriarty, spoke of those good officers and also some “not so good” as she advocated for many of the police accountability provisions in the House legislation.

“A phrase I hear too often is, ‘We see George Floyd all the time,’” Moriarty said. “Rough and abusive behavior happens regularly. The world only finds out about it when incidents like this take place.”

House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division (Remote Hearing) 7/1/20

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter spoke of several reforms within his city’s police department and urged the Legislature to take decisive action on statewide policies.

“The world is watching as we’re ground zero for a national awakening,” Carter said. “The U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate, but polls say that people still feel unsafe, because we are treating the symptoms, not the problem. … We need to start to fix the perception that officers are armed enforcers of the status quo.”

Rep. Brian Johnson (R-Cambridge) complimented Carter on St. Paul’s changes in police policy and said, “Most of the stuff in these bills are things that it’s the option of the local communities to do these things. … We need to have guidelines, not statutes. Any city or sheriff’s office can do these things already.”

Carter replied: “I would implore this body to consider that, if you approach this from the perspective of all the ways we don’t need to help, we’re approaching it from the wrong angle. Let’s take every single action we can imagine to keep this from happening again. It is a matter of life and death before us.”

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