ST. PAUL — On a hot afternoon last June hundreds of demonstrators packed the Minnesota Capitol lawn hoisting signs that called for justice for George Floyd.
Weeks after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd to the ground with his knee as Floyd pleaded for help, they yelled "Black Lives Matter" and called on lawmakers to pass a set of bills that would hold police officers accountable.
The chants could be heard in the Capitol building, though demonstrators and members of the public were blocked from entry. And they helped spur more than a month of debate about changes Minnesota should make to police training and disciplinary procedures.
In July, the divided Legislature passed a statewide ban on chokeholds and warrior training and required officers to intervene if they see a fellow officer using excessive force. Their compromise package also required more officer training in de-escalation techniques, crisis intervention and mental health and put in place mechanisms to investigate police-involved deaths and sexual assaults. Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill into law in July.
At the time, lawmakers heralded the package's passage into law as a success. Democrats along with Republicans said they would have work left to do in passing additional proposals that would seek to hold police accountable and prevent racial bias in policing.
But Minnesotans who’ve lost loved ones to police violence and civil rights advocates said the changes didn't go far enough. And earlier this year they brought forward another set of reforms they said could have a meaningful impact on disciplining police officers that discriminate or act out.
“These are sort of half measures, they’re toothless,” Julia Decker, American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota policy director, said of the changes passed last year. “These types of reforms address a particular instance of police violence, they don’t change the system.”
Meanwhile, law enforcement groups have said they need more time to put the changes in place because COVID-19 stalled their rollout. They also warned of unintended consequences that could take effect if lawmakers pass the new proposals.
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So far, the bills have reached a wall as a Senate leader has yet to put them up for a committee hearing. That key gatekeeper said the plans will likely be pushed aside this year so that lawmakers can focus on passing a budget.
As lawmakers return from legislative recess for the final sprint of the 2021 legislative session, they'll have to decide whether to extend deadlines for requirements set to take effect this summer and weigh new requirements around prohibiting officers from joining white supremacy groups, putting in place more citizen accountability panels and blocking officers' qualified immunity.
2020 reforms begin rolling out
The Minnesota Peace Officers Standards and Training Board earlier this year said that it has put into its training programs the new guidance prohibiting warrior-style training and requiring an officer to step in if a fellow officer uses excessive force. The POST Board is in charge of education, licensing and training for more than 11,800 Minnesota peace officers.
"The need has changed and we failed to change with it, so what we're trying to do now is we're trying to take apart the car and rebuild it while we're still driving down the freeway and we're working very very hard to do that," POST Board Chair Kelly McCarthy said.
The board also said it was working on implementing officer training for autism awareness and responding to mental health emergencies. And a database for reporting officer misconduct is set to be up and running by July 1, as the law required.
Law enforcement groups said most agencies already banned chokeholds and required officers to intervene if a colleague used deadly force, so those changes were relatively easy to make. But others, like new training in de-escalation and the use of deadly force, faced roadblocks because of COVID-19 concerns.
Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association Executive Director Brian Peters said that proposal and others were put together hastily last summer, and now, police agencies are grappling with how to apply them.
"They were trying to get something done so quickly that they were pushing things we realize now are an issue," Peters said. "It's frustrating because legislators don't seem to be in a rush to do anything even though you have people like the county attorneys saying we have a problem here."
Peters said his group and others asked lawmakers to tweak the new standards to give departments more time to train. Minnesota senators as part of a law enforcement spending plan sought to extend the deadline for requiring the training but that measure hadn't come up for a hearing in the House.
A push for broader changes
Democratic lawmakers, led by members of the People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus, have brought forward another round of bills this year that would bar law enforcement officers from associating with white supremacist organizations, create local citizen oversight groups, make body camera video footage to family members of a person killed by police within 48 hours and block qualified immunity for police officers.
The bills' authors said they were frustrated to see the Legislature act on accountability issues only after serious deadly force issues spurred national attention. And they said they hoped lawmakers would act more proactively to set in place policies that could prevent additional deaths.
Rep. John Thompson, D-St. Paul, ran for the Legislature after his friend Philando Castile was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer in 2016. Thompson brought legislation this year that would open up unaltered bodycam footage of a deadly police encounter to a deceased person's family within 48 hours of the incident and outlaw qualified immunity for police officers. Qualified immunity protects officers from civil lawsuits dealing with the obstruction of a person's constitutional rights.
"Every year we're here and we're here for one reason and that's bad policing," Thompson said last week. "Not saying that all police officers are bad, but the bad ones are making the good ones look very bad."
The viral video of Floyd's death under the knee of a former Minneapolis police officer reignited calls for more community involvement in law enforcement, the bills' supporters said. And the Legislature should take steps to prevent similar instances in the future.
"We can't have officers like Derek Chauvin on our force," Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, told a House committee. "You have to have checks and balances on anyone who has power, especially for any group of people who has the power to take away a member of the community's life."
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Law enforcement groups have said the measures would come at a substantial cost to local governments and could slow or impede ongoing investigations. They also warned that the bills could carry unintended consequences and make it harder to recruit new officers.
"If the Legislature wants to make a difference in holding officers accountable, you should join us in fixing our broken arbitration process and allow chief law enforcement officers, like myself, to better hold bad officers accountable," Richfield Police Chief Jay Henthorne said.
Brian Peters, with the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, deemed the proposals "completely ridiculous" and said his organization was working with members of the Senate to ensure the bills don't pass this session.
"Law enforcement is trying to deal with situations government hasn't been able to fix for decades," Peters said, pointing to mental health, domestic violence, substance abuse and low levels of educational attainment as examples. "And right now, instead of trying to fix those issues we want to blame law enforcement officers when they make a mistake."
So far this legislative session, the proposals had not come up for a committee hearing in the Senate, which signals they have a tough road forward in that chamber. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, wasn't available for an interview ahead of this story's publication but said reforms would take a backseat to budget issues this year.
Senate Republicans have held up concerns about measures passed last summer that haven't been properly implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic and said the state should extend deadlines for putting the requirements in place before adding on more requirements for peace officers.