Minnesota police reform efforts halt as Republican officials dispute recommended changes

GOP proposals are ‘weak sauce’ that do not rise to urgency in aftermath of Floyd’s death, says Democratic governor

Holly Bailey
Sunday 21 June 2020 14:40 BST
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Statehouse police reform efforts in Minnesota, where the death of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests over policing, were called into question on Saturday after criminal justice legislation collapsed in a whirl of partisan finger-pointing.

Governor Tim Walz and other Democrats, who control the state House, had pushed far-reaching police overhauls including a statewide ban on so-called warrior training, new rules on the use of the deadly force and accountability measures that would make it easier to fire problem officers.

Republicans, who control the state Senate, supported a shorter list of 11 changes, including banning chokeholds and requiring officers to stop colleagues from using excessive force. Late on Friday night, they also proposed reforming the arbitration process for officers, which many departments say makes it difficult to fire problem police officers, by shifting those cases to outside administrative law judges.

“If they’re not interested in this, I don’t think personally that they’ll ever be interested in something that we can agree to,” said Paul Gazelka, the Republican leader of the state Senate, of Democrats during an early morning news conference Saturday.

But Mr Walz called the GOP proposals “weak sauce” that did not rise to the urgency of the moment in the aftermath of Mr Floyd’s death. He criticised Republicans for moving to adjourn the special session before a deal could be reached.

“To take your ball and go home in the middle of this, this is an embarrassment for Minnesota,” Mr Walz told reporters on Saturday afternoon.

Mr Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died on 25 May after Minneapolis police officers handcuffed him and held him down for nearly nine minutes, with one officer’s knee pressing on his throat. The four officers were subsequently fired and charged in his death.

Hordes of protesters have marched through streets across the globe to protest racism and call for systemic change to policing.

Many local and state governments in the United States have taken up a range of police overhauls, including in Minneapolis, where the city council has pledged to disband the police department.

But in state government, Republicans refused to address the “warrior” training issue — which was formally banned by the Minneapolis Police Department only to be offered as a course by the police union. They also rejected two other measures supported by Democrats: a proposal that would have restored voting rights to tens of thousands of felons and put Keith Ellison, the state’s attorney general and a Democrat, in charge of prosecuting police killings.

The legislature had originally been called into special session to address issues related to the novel coronavirus and the budget. But Mr Walz, who called lawmakers back to St Paul, and his allies said the need to respond and act on calls for change on issues of race and policing after Mr Floyd’s death were too much to ignore.

“Minnesota will change the way we do policing. Minnesota will change what accountability looks like, and Minnesota will start to lift up those voices that for too long have felt they haven’t been heard,” Mr Walz said on 11 June, citing the “destiny and history” of the moment.

A man argues with a Minneapolis Police officer at a crime scene on 16 June in Minneapolis, following a new wave of anti-police protests across the US (Getty)

But Republicans did not share the urgency. Mr Gazelka said he would keep lawmakers at the capital for only a week. After days of fraught negotiations, including tense debates between black and white lawmakers, Mr Gazelka moved to adjourn the session after sunrise on Saturday morning — angering Democrats who said it was proof that GOP lawmakers weren’t serious about tackling issues of systemic racism and police reforms.

“At the end of the day, white men have been in charge around here for a long time in this country and in this state,” said state senator Jeff Hayden, who is African American and whose district includes the neighbourhood where Mr Floyd was killed. “If they knew what it was like for me, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

On Saturday, Mr Gazelka pointed the finger at Mr Walz for “behind-the-scenes arm-twisting” that he said “ended any hope of working together right now.” He told reporters he would be willing to come back for a “one day” special session to take up criminal justice reform.

“We are not walking away from the table, but we do need to reset the table so we can move forward,” Mr Gazelka wrote on Twitter. “I do believe we will have another special session, but not until all the parties can agree.”

Mr Walz has the power to convene the legislature again but declined to say on Saturday whether he would do so. The governor spent the day reaching out to allies, including Mr Hayden, to plot the next steps. And he expressed concern about how the legislature’s inability to pass criminal justice reform might play with activists and other protesters who have openly been distrustful of elected leaders and their ability to change the system.

“I’m really, really worried (about) the message this sends to all those tens of thousands of protesters who were on the streets, all those families, and all those people across Minnesota and across the country that expected this one was going to be different,” Mr Walz told reporters on Saturday.

Mr Walz said he was about to meet with Valerie Castile, whose son Philando Castile was shot and killed by an officer in the suburbs of Minneapolis in 2016.

“She thought this would be different,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell her.”

The Washington Post

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