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Democrats push for policing law changes following George Floyd's death

Lawmakers are expected to return to St. Paul later this week to take up additional COVID-19 response.

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People gather Friday, June 5, 2020, at East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, which is the site where George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis Police custody. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
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ST. PAUL — Democrats in the Minnesota Senate on Monday, June 8, said they would push for changes to the state's criminal justice laws as part of a special legislative session and pushed back on Republican calls to wait to better assess the situation.

The comments follow a Friday news conference in which the state's top Republican leader — Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka — said he hoped to take up criminal justice proposals but didn't think they could pass this week and as Minneapolis city leaders consider dismantling the police department there.

The Minnesota Legislature on Friday is expected to return to the Capitol for a special session to weigh an extension of Gov. Tim Walz's emergency authority in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and to take additional steps to battle the illness. But limiting deadly force encounters with law enforcement officers also rose as a priority for lawmakers in the divided Capitol following the death of George Floyd.

Floyd died after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held Floyd on the ground while he knelt on his neck. The account was captured on a bystander's video, which was released and went viral after the Minneapolis Police Department issued an initial report about the death that didn't mention that Chauvin pinned Floyd to the ground for several minutes as Floyd and others asked for help.

“The veracity and the full-throatedness that you see right now is because George Floyd died eight blocks from my house,” Sen. Jeff Hayden, D-Minneapolis, said when asked why he was pushing for changes. “He’s a guy that looks like me and we all got to watch those 8 minutes and 43 seconds and then the ensuing carnage that happened in my district. It’s personal for me."

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Hayden and other members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus pushed for legislation that would make it a crime to use unjustified deadly force that results in death or severe injury, place deadly force investigations under the jurisdiction of the attorney general's office and expand training in police de-escalation techniques following Floyd's death and protests that followed. The Democratic lawmakers said the measures should come up for consideration as soon as possible and they pushed back on concerns from Republicans that lawmakers should take more time examining potential changes.

“This is an urgent situation. If we had any other sort of emergency around the state of Minnesota, a natural disaster, for example, we would take this up quickly and we would not talk about deliberative means to address the situation,” Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, said. “This is about making the call for handling this urgent situation with an urgent response.”

Gazelka said lawmakers had made changes to criminal justice laws in recent years and could again take up potential alterations. But he said it was unlikely those plans would be ready to pass on Friday.

“I believe Minnesota needs to lead the nation in race reconciliation. We have an opportunity, this is an opportunity that comes around once in a generation, and what are we going to do with that?” Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Friday. “It’s important we get it right."

DFL lawmakers also sought to separate their proposals from calls from city leaders in Minneapolis to decrease funds to the Minneapolis Police Department, saying that issue should be addressed at the local level.

Minneapolis leaders in talks to defund police

In Minneapolis, members of the city council over the weekend told demonstrators they planned to support an effort to defund the Minneapolis Police Department. The comment followed Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey's announcement that he would support changes to the department, not cutting its funding.

Nine of 12 members of the Minneapolis City Council on Sunday said they would support such an effort, and the supermajority could block a veto if they all agreed to the same policies. After widespread reporting about the comments, members clarified that their public support didn't formalize any plan to decrease funding to the department.

"We did not vote to disband the police yesterday," Council Member Phillipe Cunningham said on Twitter. "A super majority of the City Council formally announced support for beginning the process of doing so to build new systems of public safety."

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The move drew quick opposition from Republican lawmakers at all levels, who said the move to defund or disband could have public safety implications outside the city.

“Before the Minneapolis City Council defunds or disbands the Minneapolis Police Department, there need to be legislative hearings on what the consequences of that would mean for our region and state," Rep. Patrick Garofalo, R-Farmington, said in a news release. "Legislators cannot sit by silently while a rogue city council drives our state into anarchy.”

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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