MN House panel moves to change police powers

Protesters face off against police behind a fence.
Demonstrators protesting the shooting death of Daunte Wright face off with National Guard soldiers and police protecting the Brooklyn Center police station on April 13, 2021 in Brooklyn Center, Minn. Wright, a Black man whose car was stopped in town on Sunday reportedly for an expired registration, was shot and killed by an officer who police say mistook her gun for a Taser.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

In the aftermath of Sunday’s fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, a Minnesota House committee met Wednesday to take up four bills aimed at changing how police operate in the state.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, the chair of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, acknowledged the timing of the hearing.

“I think given the need for the community to have an outlet to speak about how these laws and potential bills would impact them is incredibly important in this moment,” Becker-Finn said.

One bill the committee approved would remove civil and criminal liability immunity for police officers, making it easier for a person deprived of their constitutional rights to sue an officer. Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, is the bill’s author.

Another Thompson bill would prevent police officers from altering body-camera recordings of deadly force incidents or withholding the release of such recordings to family members.

“I want to make sure that we do everything we can possibly do in this legislative body to create an atmosphere where there’s no room for bad policing,” Thompson said.

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Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, presented a bill that would allow local units of government to establish citizen oversight panels. Those panels would be able to investigate misconduct allegations and issue findings.

Gomez said the bill would bring needed accountability.

“If residents don’t feel safe interacting with law enforcement because there is not a history of those engaging in misconduct being held accountable, the community won’t cooperate with investigations,” Gomez said.

Lawmakers sometimes used strong language to describe their concerns about policing.

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said she thought some of the comments went too far.

“We are the Legislature. We are not the judiciary. We are not the judge and jury of the cases that are in the news right now,” Scott said. “To use words like ‘murder’ and ‘execute,’ I think that we can do better.”   

Democrats hold a majority of the seats in the House, meaning the bills could pass. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll reach the desk of Gov. Tim Walz, who has said he supports changes.

Leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate agreed this week to hold hearings on police power but stopped short of promising action this session.

Lawmakers are also considering legislation to limit the authority of law enforcement to stop or detain drivers for certain motor vehicle equipment violations.

That bill is expected to be offered as an amendment to a larger public safety budget bill that is scheduled for a hearing Thursday in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, said too many Black motorists are stopped by police.

“This is a carefully crafted bill to decrease racial disparities in police stops while still ensuring public safety,” Moller said.