Politics and Government

Lawmakers tussle over public safety practices as Chauvin verdict nears

National Guard troops stand outside a building.
Members of the National Guard patrol behind a a security fence perimeter surrounding the Hennepin County Government Center, where the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin is being held, on March 31 in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yucel | AFP via Getty Images file

Updated: April 19, 5:54 p.m. | Posted: April 18, 4:20 p.m.

Simmering tensions around public safety practices in Minnesota are almost certain to ratchet up this week when the murder case against Derek Chauvin in George Floyd’s death lands in the hands of a Hennepin County jury.

As the public braces for a verdict and security plans get put in motion, pressure will also be on state leaders as they decide how to respond to both the short-term ramifications and the broader calls for change. The state Senate voted 48 to 19 on Monday to provide $9 million toward security expenses tied to the trial.

“This is a challenging time,” Gov. Tim Walz said last week, calling the verdict an “inflection point for not only Minnesota, certainly not just Minneapolis-St. Paul and the surrounding area, but for our entire country.”

He said the verdict will no doubt cause anguish and could very well lead to mass demonstrations. “Emotions are going to run incredibly high,” he said.

In a press conference on Monday with the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Walz said that he wants people to exercise their right to protest, but also vowed to prevent businesses from being destroyed as they were during civil unrest following Floyd's killing last summer. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter told reporters that they didn't plan to issue preemptive curfews in their cities in the days leading up to the Chauvin verdict.

Walz and lawmakers got a sense of the raw feelings last week following the death of another Black man, Daunte Wright, in a Brooklyn Center police altercation. The officer who shot and killed Wright has since resigned from the force and been charged with manslaughter.

At the Capitol, lawmakers of color threatened to put the brakes on state budget negotiations until police accountability bills received adequate consideration.

“The people of Minnesota deserve and demand a future where community trust is sacred, police officers are held accountable for misconduct and justice is served,” said Rep. Cedric Frazier, DFL-New Hope.

The state House has held multiple hearings and advanced several proposals to bring more oversight to policing, whether that’s how body camera footage is maintained or how misconduct complaints are handled.

It’s been quieter in the Senate. That shifted last week when Republican leaders there said they would take a look at additional changes beyond a policing package approved last year. That law adopted in July outlawed certain types of chokeholds, upgraded training and raised the standard for justified use of force.

This year, the most significant proposals face opposition from law enforcement groups, including professional police associations that represent officers and department leaders. They hold sway with Republicans in particular.

“Yes, there is going to be bad incidents,” said Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, during a debate over a public safety bill last week. “There are going to be unfortunate accidents. But the amount of murders and deaths in Minnesota from crime way outweigh the small incidence of accidents that do happen in the line of duty.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Friday he’s willing to consider proposals, but he is in search of consensus.

“I’m looking at the people who are crying out for more justice, the communities of color. The police that want to make sure they have the adequate resources to do their job. But also the victims who want to make sure their streets are safe and that criminals do not get away with activities that make us not feel safe,” he said. “It’s very, very complex.”

There is bipartisan openness to reducing traffic stops for minor infractions — malfunctioning equipment, an air freshener on the rearview mirror, or expired license plate tabs. Proponents say those circumstances are often used as pretext for more invasive stops or racial profiling, and they argue it can lead to dangerous situations for motorists or police.

Wright’s death fueled nights of protests and led to tense confrontations between crowds and authorities outside the Brooklyn Center police building. It provided something of a test run around mass protests and the way officials will handle them upon the Chauvin verdict.

Attempts to disperse crowds in Brooklyn Center produced clashes. Some say authorities were too quick to turn to chemical irritants, flash bangs, rubber projectiles and marking rounds. Law enforcement leaders said they were under siege from people looking for confrontation.

The Senate’s vote on response expenses came after a debate about the appropriate response to unrest. Ohio and Nebraska have been publicly identified as sending in state patrol members at the request of Minnesota officials. They will be stationed at state facilities where security is being beefed up, according to a spokesperson for Operation Safety Net.

It’s unclear if the proposal will make it through intact, especially in the House, where some Democrats have questioned the magnitude of security and the methods being used.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said demonstrations last week in Brooklyn Center got out of hand when some on the scene threw bottles and other objects at police. Authorities responded with chemicals, crowd control tactics and ultimately arrests.

“We must recognize the difference between lawful protest, lawful demonstrations and criminal acts in the form of riot,” he said.

Supporters of the aid said pre-emptive measures are needed to stop businesses from being burned and looted and public safety being put at risk.

But Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, said authorities might be going too far and putting people in a state of fear.

“Right now they’re experiencing a lot of trauma,” she said. “We have a lot of military presence in the streets and people are traumatized.”

Last year, Walz was among the public officials widely criticized for not acting swift enough to calm the chaos after Floyd’s death. Now he’s encountering resistance to preemptive measures and the tactics being used to keep protests from spinning out of control.

“Having people to be able to express this deep trauma they have but making sure we don’t have buildings burned and looted and people put at risk does cause some tensions about the decisions that are being made,” Walz said.

On Friday, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution urging more restraint going forward. Several members criticized the state-devised Operation Safety Net as too militarized and overly aggressive. 

“There might be a reason for it — the reason being last summer,” said council member Jeremiah Ellison, referring to the tumultuous week that followed Floyd’s death last May. “But there’s not a basis for how we’re going about implementing it. It’s just indiscriminate assaults, gassing, arresting of protesters.”

Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, said Friday she would introduce a bill to bar the irritants and nonlethal munitions at the state level.

“Using chemical weapons and less lethal rounds on a grieving crowd exercising their constitutionally-protected rights is cruel and escalatory,” she wrote on Twitter.

Many places in the Twin Cities, not just the Hennepin County courthouse where the Chauvin trial is happening, have been fortified, including government buildings, area police stations and the state Capitol.

The Walz administration brought in State Patrol and Department of Natural Resource conservation officers from around Minnesota. And the governor activated thousands of Guard members. He has justified their presence amid a chilly response in the left flank of his party. 

Republicans are happy to point this tension out, knowing that Walz is on the ballot next year and seeing cracks in his political base.

All 201 seats in the Legislature are also up for grabs next year, with the public safety issue shaping up as a fault line.

DFL legislative leaders are under enormous pressure to deliver on more changes to policing in the aftermath of the Floyd and Wright killings. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said last week she’s “committed to going to the mat to get something done” on police accountability this year.

Republicans also have a lot riding on this. They’ve cast themselves as the law-and-order party. But they could risk coming off as insensitive if they don’t at least consider ways to address systemic flaws and distrust of police within some communities.

“I am going to be part of the solution,” Gazelka said. “I am listening.”

MPR News reporter Catharine Richert contributed to this story.

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