'Still in gridlock': Walz presses GOP to go big on police overhaul package

Protesters march by the Minnesota State Capitol building.
In wake of the police killing of George Floyd, protesters march by the Minnesota State Capitol building after gathering outside of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison's office in downtown St. Paul on June 5.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News file

Updated 5:33 p.m.

The Minnesota House and Senate are taking vastly different approaches to restructuring policing in the state in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. They’re also on different paths about who decides what that restructuring looks like.

"So far, we're still in gridlock. So far, we've had the entire week to move things. But now is the time," Gov. Tim Walz said Thursday as he urged Senate GOP leaders to work with House DFLers on a package of sweeping changes during this special session.

The Minnesota House is expected to debate its policing bills Thursday night. GOP leaders say they plan to end the special session Friday. Right now, there is no indication that a deal is near.

One measure that highlights the differences involves acceptable use of deadly force. The House bill would raise the threshold for justified use in state law while the Senate bill leaves it to the state’s police licensing board to rework the standard.

State Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, called the Senate Republican proposals insulting because they contained "no accountability, no systemic change.” She compared them to laws passed after the Civil War to “keep black people devalued.”

“We are in a moment in time here in Minnesota to do the right thing, to hear the voices of the people,” she said. “This is not a black issue. This is not a people of color issue. This is a world issue.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, defended his members’ response to the Floyd killing and the need to address policing.

“We have been working" on policing proposals, he said. "We all agree that the death of George Floyd was tragic. I don't know anybody who disagreed the four officers should be fired."

Gazelka said Walz should be focused on areas of agreement and "not jam each other." He reiterated that the Senate will adjourn Friday night, but said he's willing to come back later as new agreements are crafted.

‘Still hope’

In the Democratic-led House, black, Latinx and Native American members have taken the lead in advancing bills aimed at increasing transparency, civility and accountability in law enforcement.

The People of Color and Indigenous Caucus accounts for just 19 of the 201 members of the Legislature, but the imprint of the group known as the caucus and their voices are hard to miss in the debate over policing and community rebuilding at the Capitol.

“Owning your narrative matters,” Rep. Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis, said earlier this week. “The reason why the POCI caucus had to step up was to instill hope in our community that their government has not abandoned them. That there is still hope that we can make this right.”

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said compromise over policing changes, not credit over who sponsors them, should be the goal. 

“The governor wants it, we want it, but apparently if someone else authors it, you need not support it,” Limmer said after hours of back-and-forth and near party-line votes Tuesday night. Given the circumstances that led up to the special session, he said, “I would have thought we would have come together anxious to work on something.”

But in the Senate, a lack of meaningful input by lawmakers of color fueled a tense debate over a handful of policing bills approved this week.

Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, said sweeping proposals were virtually ignored in favor of what she sees as incremental bills.

“It is hard for me to really accept that some of the significant changes that the POCI caucus put together for all of us are not adequate,” Torres Ray said. “I cannot in good conscience today understand why.”

Fellow Democratic Sen. Jeff Hayden represents the Minneapolis district where George Floyd was killed under the knee of a police officer.

Black, similarly burly and not much older, Hayden likened himself to Floyd in demanding drastic change, punctuated by several sharp exchanges with Limmer.

“So why don’t we stop looking at this issue through your eyes, senator? And start looking at it through my eyes. Start looking at it through us that have to deal with this issue,” he said.

Hayden said he’s tired of death after death involving police being met with outrage and then legislative indifference.

“Sick and tired of asking people each and every day that if you put a law enforcement community that is supposed to protect me that they don’t put their boot on my neck, that they don’t shoot me, that they don’t choke me, that they don’t humiliate me,” Hayden said. “I’m tired of having my heart race every time a law enforcement person gets behind me because I have been socialized to be afraid of them.”

Driving people away from policing?

Hayden clashed with Limmer, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, about why lawmakers with the best pulse of community concerns weren’t more involved in writing the bills.

Limmer responded that the product, not the process is what matters. And he said the changes under consideration aren’t about just one city.

“I didn’t think I had to get permission from four or five people to present a law that applies to the entire state of Minnesota, not just south Minneapolis,” Limmer said. “We’re called state senators for a reason.”

Limmer said he would prefer that lawmakers defer to experts, such as having a police licensing board craft new use of force standards. In developing his bills, Limmer said he’s consulted with Lexipol, a law enforcement policy clearinghouse based in Texas.

Sen. Bill Ingebritsen, R-Alexandria and a former county sheriff, said an anti-police tenor since Floyd’s death has been insulting. The vast majority of law enforcement officers conduct themselves responsibly despite increasingly difficult conditions, Ingebritsen said.

“They’re doing the job that nobody in this room wants to do or ever would want to do,” Ingebritsen said. “In fact, I think before too long there isn’t going to be many that want to do. And when that happens, members, this is quite frankly going to be a walk in the park compared to what we’re going to be dealing with.”

Walz on Thursday send the time was now to change policing in a new era spurred by the killing of Floyd, a black man, noting that Friday is Juneteenth, a commemoration of the end of slavery following the end of the Civil War.

“If destiny and history is not raining down on Minnesota today and tomorrow, I don’t know what is,” Walz told reporters. “The image of us and the Senate walking away from systemic change on Juneteenth adds to the legacy of what the rest of the world is looking at here. It is unacceptable."

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