Police reform remains sticking point in Legislature's final days

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Patience is visibly fraying among Minnesota lawmakers considering new police reforms this session, with the latest arguments on one of the year's most pressing debates taking a Biblical turn.

"I think God makes us instrumentalities to do what needs to be done, not just for us to sit back and hope that God takes care of things," said state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, after a recent meeting designed to craft the state's next public safety spending bill. "That's why we are here, and if we fail to act we are complicit in the outcomes."

Deemed by GOP Senate leaders as the forum for considering the latest sweeping package of policing proposals, the Legislature's joint public safety conference committee has instead so far repeated the stalemate marking the 2021 session of Minnesota's divided government.

House Democrats have brought in families of those killed by law enforcement to urge passage of 12 new policing bills, part of a broader push for dozens of new criminal justice bills. Senate Republicans — insistent on focusing on the next two-year state budget — have meanwhile not responded to the offer, citing the lack of overall budget targets from legislative leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who initially promised separate hearings on police reform late in the session, singled out the public safety conference committee as the forum for debate over policing bills. He has also said such proposals would be part of final budget negotiations.

With just days remaining until the session's May 17 adjournment date, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, told reporters leaders are inching toward a middle ground on budget targets and said negotiations sped up after the state got federal guidance Monday on how it can use $2.8 billion in COVID-19 relief funding. But she said they would not be able to wrap up everything by Monday.

Hortman called police reform and accountability measures "the linchpin" in session negotiations.

Still clinging to hope that police reform could get done before the Legislature adjourns, Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday convened a second press conference in as many weeks to urge passage of the measures this session, again referencing the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright as an inflection point.

Walz was joined by DFL members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, as well as a throng of community faith leaders and local business owners.

"If it looks like we have a community up here, that's our intent," Walz said.

Among the police accountability proposals singled out by Democrats in the House are measures to impose new limits on traffic stops, increased civilian oversight of police, new regulations around no-knock warrants and body camera footage, as well as prohibiting police from affiliating with white supremacist organizations.

"This is not a matter of knowing what to do, it is not a matter of resources per se," said imam Makram Al-Amin of Masjid An-Nur in Minneapolis. "This is a matter of will to do."

For the first time since the public safety committee began meeting this month, the Senate declined to call a hearing on Wednesday.

In recent days, the committee's GOP chair, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Gove, has grown frustrated by the steady drip of new batches of policy proposals offered by the House DFL. He has said that Republicans were waiting for guidance from leaders on spending targets before presenting a more substantive counteroffer of their own.

Gazelka said Wednesday that some of the police measures Democrats are pushing are "anti-police" and would not keep streets safe or ensure the state maintains enough police. He said they have pushed back on that area, but Democrats have threatened to not cooperate if the Senate does not do what they want on the law enforcement provisions.

And while Walz later told reporters that he was encouraged by the increased pace of offers being exchanged among legislative leaders he added that "philosophically, we still are a long ways apart."

Rep. Cedrick Frazier, a New Hope Democrat who serves as vice chair on the House's public safety committee and sponsor of multiple policing bills, said Wednesday that he is taking the Senate at its word that it is still reviewing the proposals.

Both Frazier and Walz held out hope that police reforms could still be part of any agreement that could come before the May 17 adjournment, although Walz acknowledged more broadly that "special sessions tend to be more of the norm now than special."

"You heard it from these voices: There is a fierce sense of urgency to get this done," Walz said. "There's a lot of folks who believe if we stretch this thing out, the sense of urgency becomes less and it's easier to go home and pretend like everything is OK."

Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755

Twitter: @smontemayor