MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s historic police reforms drew varied reactions Tuesday, from mild enthusiasm to disgust, with a common refrain: The state still has a long way to go.
A compromise product of a divided state Legislature, the package of policing changes was welcomed as a step in the right direction — but one that falls far short of the sort of transformational change demanded after the police killing of George Floyd.
Attorney and activist Nekima Levy Armstrong called the final product “a slap in the face” to Black Minnesotans. And even one police group said the reforms didn’t go far enough. Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said he wanted to see deeper changes to the arbitration process that so often overturns decisions on police discipline.
The bill includes restrictions on chokeholds and neck restraints — such as the one used on Floyd — and a prohibition on warrior-style training for officers. It enhances data collection around deadly force encounters, requires officers to intervene and creates a new state unit to investigate such cases. The bill boosts funding for crisis intervention training, creates a panel of expert arbitrators to handle police misconduct cases and establishes incentives for officers to live in the communities they police.
Its passage came after weeks of legislative impasse that had already derailed another special session in June — one that was initially called to review Gov. Tim Walz’s extension of his emergency powers. But the continuing outrage over Floyd’s killing kept up the pressure on the only divided legislature in the nation to find common ground when Walz extended the state of emergency again in July.
“We’ve never stopped working on this, whether we were in session or out of session. That’s something we all felt was important,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.
Toshira Garraway, whose partner Justin Teigen was killed by police in 2009, spoke Tuesday during a news conference outside the governor’s residence to denounce the reforms to the state’s criminal justice system passed by the Legislature.
Walz is expected to sign the measure into law Thursday.
“No piece of legislation is perfect and I wouldn’t view any as the end,” Walz said. “As our society changed, and as this issue became apparent, we were able to move. I think it’s pretty amazing we moved some of these issues around POST Board, around chokeholds, around warrior training … we were able to pass that.”
Walz said the first text he got after the proposal passed early Tuesday was family members of people killed by police, who wanted to “express their deep disappointment that it didn’t go far enough.”
“The emotion of being glad to see us come together and move significant reform but also the sense of frustration, and in many cases anguish, from some of these families that they didn’t get what they wanted to see in this bill, I think that behooves us to continue to work together,” he said.
Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said he, too, considers Minnesota’s police changes a work in progress.
“When I look at the laws that have been passed in other states for police reform, most of it comes down to banning chokeholds and some duty to intervene, Harrington said. “I think this is far broader and goes far deeper than that. I think we did really good work.”
“My hat is off to both sides, the Senate and the House, for coming to the finish line,” he said.
State Rep. Rena Moran, the DFL co-chair of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus (POCI) at the Legislature, said lawmakers did the best they could under difficult circumstances. There’s more work to be done, she said.
“We had to work with a Republican Senate that is pretty much police friendly,” Moran said. “That’s the reality of where we are here in the state of Minnesota.”
“It is only the beginning,” Moran said. “It is not the end.”
Steven Belton, president and CEO of the Urban League Twin Cities, said he’s grateful a compromise was struck, but greater reforms are needed. For example, he said, the bill did not include a requirement that law enforcement officers carry their own personal liability insurance — something that he said creates an incentive for officers to check themselves.
“In a way, this legislation represents the low hanging fruit,” Belton said. “We’ve richer, higher fruit that needs to be harvested.”
But he said the bill is better than nothing: “As my daddy used to say ‘It’s better than a poke in the eye, son.’?”
“We’ll be back in subsequent legislative sessions,” he said, “pushing for more and deeper reform.”
Julia Decker, policy director for ACLU of Minnesota, expressed her disappointment that the bill didn’t require an independent prosecutor, such as the Attorney General, to handle officer-involved deaths.
“We certainly hope that the Legislature recognizes this to be the beginning, and not the end,” Decker said.
Some of the most heated reaction came from Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB), an advocacy group that has worked for decades on policing issues. The group protested outside the governor’s residence Tuesday to voice their disappointment with the package of reforms.
In an interview, CUAPB president Michelle Gross called the measure a “mediocre bill” with “a lot of extra garbage that we don’t need.”
“It doesn’t doing anything substantial to end violent policing,” Gross said. “The legislators, frankly, are frightened of the law enforcement lobby.”
Gross said the bill failed to include many of the 44 recommendations her group has pushed, such as requiring that police release body camera footage to families of victims within 48 hours, and ending the civil statue of limitations on wrongful death to give families more time to file a lawsuit.
Armstrong, founder of the Racial Justice Network, a grassroots civil rights organization, agreed that the reform measure is “very weak” and pointed out that the chokehold language isn’t a ban because it allows an exception “to protect the peace officer or another from death or great bodily harm.”
“We consider it to be watered-down legislation, and a mere fraction of what they could have done to begin to address the systemic nature of police violence and abuse that permeates far too many police departments in Minnesota,” Armstrong said in an interview.
“The Legislature should not be patting themselves on the back for doing the bare minimum. It shouldn’t have taken two special sessions to get this watered down bill,” she said. “It’s a slap in the face, especially to Black residents in the state of Minnesota.”
Other reform-minded Minnesotans also found the bill lacking. Abigail Cerra, a former public defender and member of the civilian-led Police Conduct Oversight Commission, said she cannot speak for the commission, but said the bill should have changed public records law to make police discipline more transparent. Currently, only misconduct complaints that are sustained are made public, making it impossible for the public to find out about incidents that lead to many complaints. Many complaints result not in discipline but in “coaching.” And since that isn’t classified as discipline, those cases are not made public.
But she praised the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus at the Legislature for “tenacious leadership and advocacy” on the reforms. “They could have let it drop and they didn’t,” she said.
(Minneapolis Star Tribune staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.)
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