Local police wait to see how public safety bill shakes out

·4 min read

Jun. 29—MANKATO — Local law enforcement say they're pleased to see a few long-sought changes in the Minnesota Legislature's public safety bill, but it's unclear how effectively those changes will be implemented.

Law enforcement officials in the Mankato area hope a controversial public safety budget agreement, which was being debated into the night in the Legislature, will continue to require 911 dispatchers to refer some calls to mental health crisis teams where appropriate, a measure police say has been decades in the making.

"I remember having that concern on Day 1," said Amy Vokal, Mankato's director of public safety.

With more than three decades of experience, Vokal said an emphasis on bringing in mental health professionals to some emergency calls is a step in the right direction. Both Vokal and North Mankato Police Chief Ross Gullickson noted officers aren't always trained to deal with the complexities of mental health crises.

"I'm hoping the mental health crisis teams will be able to take some of the burden of those calls off of us in North Mankato," he said.

Local law enforcement say other parts of the $2.6 billion bill, such as a $1 million grant program over two years for body cameras and requiring the Minnesota Board of Peace Officers Standards and Training to share more information about disciplinary actions for law enforcement, are welcome but may take some time to implement.

Also included in the bill is a provision, named after Waseca police officer Arik Matson, that would strengthen penalties for offenders convicted in cases where they cause major injuries to law enforcement or public safety officials. The bill would increase the maximum sentence for those convicted of assault with great bodily harm from 20 to 25 years. It also pushes the maximum sentence for a similar charge but with a dangerous weapon or using deadly force from 20 to 30 years.

Matson was shot in the head by a wanted suspect while responding to a call in January 2020. He is recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

The public safety agreement faces an uncertain future as DFL lawmakers protest police accountability measures that weren't included in the bill. Some measures, such as putting more stringent requirements on no-knock warrants, did make it into the budget agreement over the weekend, but a majority of the dozen or so proposals DFLers and activists have pushed for over the past year were left out.

Gov. Tim Walz attempted to address some of those concerns when he announced executive actions concerning policing on Monday. Walz is requiring state agencies to turn over body camera footage of a fatal interaction with police to victims' families within five days, increasing data sharing by the POST board and allocating $15 million toward community violence prevention programs.

Yet one of the major concerns for lawmakers is a provision that would restrict vehicle stops for minor equipment failures, also called pretextual stop. That proposal became a major push for House DFL lawmakers after Daunte Wright was killed by police in Brooklyn Center in April during a similar stop.

Vokal said it remains to be seen how negotiations shake out, but Gullickson said there needs to be more conversation on police restrictions if they're included in the final public safety bill.

"If the people and Legislature don't want someone to be stopped or found in violation of the law, take the law off the books," he said.

Trying to restrict officers can become complicated, and Gullickson said trying to make complex changes can be a "slippery slope" for law enforcement efforts around the state.

At the same time, some of the measures DFLers and activists wanted may not be much of a change for local law enforcement. Vokal said no-knock warrants have become exceedingly rare in south-central Minnesota during the past 10 to 20 years. She agreed giving more detailed information and requiring police department leaders to sign off on no-knock warrants is a positive step for law enforcement as those warrants are usually used in dangerous cases.

Both Vokal and Gullickson say they hope the Legislature provides ongoing funding for some of the new measures, as making large-scale policing changes will be difficult if they turn into unfunded or underfunded mandates.

"That can be very difficult, especially for smaller agencies or even larger agencies with no other resources readily available," Gullickson said. "With only so much resources to go around, it can be difficult when the Legislature requires you to have X and then no dollars to accomplish it."

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