82ºF

Minnesota lawmakers pass police accountability package

ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Legislature passed a broad slate of police accountability measures early Tuesday that includes a ban on neck restraints like the one that was used on George Floyd before his death in Minneapolis.

The package also bans chokeholds and so-called warrior-style training, which critics say promotes excessive force. It imposes a duty to intercede on officers who see a colleague using excessive force. It changes rules on the use of force to stress the sanctity of life. It makes changes in arbitration rules affecting police unions. Officers will get more training on dealing with people with mental health issues and autism. The measure also creates a new advisory council for the state board that licenses officers.

“This is a really a great bill, but it is only a first step,” Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, said at a news conference. “It paves the way for transformational change, but it doesn't bring about transformational change.”

Democratic House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, of Golden Valley, told reporters that Minnesota will “continue to live in a powder keg” as long as its racial inequities in health, education, income and policing continue to exist.

“It is vitally important for the world to see us pass this legislation," Winkler said. "Of course, it's more important to protect the lives of people in our state. But Minnesota, I think, has suffered a severe reputational hit in the world. And it's because we have revealed the truth of our state, which is that we are among the worst when it comes to racial equality. And that cannot continue.”

Passage came after nearly two months of difficult negotiations that followed Floyd's death May 25 and the ensuring unrest that spread around the world over police brutality and racism. The Black man was restrained face down in the street while handcuffed and with three officers holding him down, including a white officer who had a knee to Floyd's neck for nearly eight minutes.

The Republican-controlled Senate sent the bill to Democratic Gov. Tim Walz on a 60-to-7 vote early Tuesday before adjourning the special session. The House approved the package 102-29 just before midnight. Walz said he plans to sign it.

“George Floyd’s death brought the need for meaningful police reform into sharp focus for Minnesotans across the state,” the governor said in a statement. “After decades of advocacy by communities of color and Indigenous communities, the bipartisan passage of these measures is a critical step toward justice."

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, told WCCO Radio that the final package included a “number of really good things” from both parties and was backed by law enforcement groups.

On Tuesday, members of a Minneapolis city charter commission held the second of two public hearings on a proposal to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with a new agency, the Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. Last month the Minneapolis City Council unanimously advanced the proposal to change the city's charter, or constitution. Voters would need to approve the amendment.

As at the first hearing last week, many speakers during the first hour of Tuesday's hearing favored letting voters decide the issue in November. Supporters said change is needed to start addressing longstanding complaints of racism and brutality against the Police Department. But opponents called the proposal vague and lacking details.

“I understand the impulse to do something in response to the killing of George Floyd and others, and to be seen by the public as making a change,” said Carleton Crawford, a 27-year resident of Minneapolis. But he said the proposal would mark a “radical change in the way we run our city."

Walz had to call the special session, the second in as many months, to give lawmakers a chance to rescind the emergency powers he’s been using to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. The House Democratic majority last week blocked a GOP effort to void those powers, just as it did in June. Lawmakers then turned their attention to policing.

The governor will have to call another special session in mid-August if, as expected, he extends his emergency authority again. And that would give lawmakers another chance to pass one of their main unfinished pieces of business, a public construction package known as a bonding bill. They've been unable to agree on that all year.

The House voted 75-57 in favor of the $1.8 billion package early Tuesday. But bonding bills require a three-fifths majority. That would have required at least six votes from Republicans, who withheld their support in a dispute over Walz's reliance on emergency powers. A business tax break that would have benefited farmers and businesses trying to rebuild from the unrest that Democrats added to the package did not sway the House GOP.

Hortman said the outlook for passing a bonding bill next month is “murky” because the looming campaign season can only make passing it harder.