Updates: Police reform legislation at the Minnesota State Legislature
By: Sheila Regan, Freelance Community Journalist
Senator Mary K. Kunesh (DFL, District 41), said she doesn’t feel confident meaningful police reforms will pass this session.
After the murder of George Floyd last May, the Minnesota legislature saw momentum in police reform, passing a ban on chokeholds and neck restraints, end warrior-style police training, and increase data collection around police use of deadly force. The recent killing of Daunte Wright by police and the conviction of Derek Chauvin for Floyd’s murder have renewed focus on police reform, though there has been pushback by Republicans in the Senate.
“I don’t know that Majority leader Gazelka really has the heart and soul to do it this session,” she said. “He had plenty of time all session to hear some of the bills that we brought forward. He certainly knew that the House was working hard on legislation once again, and had all the information from this past summer that we worked on so hard.”
Kunesh was a member of the POCI Caucus in the House, where she worked with other DFL members on a string of police reform bills after the death of George Floyd in May of 2020. “The session has gone by and we haven’t had any hearings on those bills or those pieces of legislation,” Kunesh said.
“It is true that he could give that top priority anytime he wanted to, and hasn’t done that,” she said of Gazelka. “There’s maybe discussion around some hearings or informational hearings, but I’m not confident that that we would get it done this session, and maybe would have to go into the summer again, like we did last summer.”
Senator Gazelka did not respond to a request for comment by The Uptake.
According to Kunesh, one of the pieces of legislation the POCI caucus had championed was a bill that would allow local governments to establish civilian oversight councils that would have more teeth than what is allowed in the current law, under the Peace Officer Discipline Procedures Act. The new proposed legislation would differ from the current law in that it would allow civilian review councils to make findings of fact around complaints against an officer, and would also allow them to impose or suggest different forms of discipline for an officer.
“Right now as it is, there’s no power, or any real substance behind the citizens role within the Discipline Procedures Act,” Kunesh said. “The community should be able to say, do we want this person to continue working within our community, or do we not?”
Another piece of legislation put forth by the POCI caucus, Kunesh said, is to make sure body camera videos are made available in a timely manner.
“We want to make sure that they can’t alter it or erase it or destroy any of that footage, and that they need to share it with the family for sure, in a timely manner, as well as the community,” Kunesh said.
Finally, she said, she and her colleagues have pushed for a prohibition around police officers who have affiliations with white supremacy or racist groups. “That’s just such a painful thought that we would have anybody that has those kind of strong hateful attitudes to begin with, within a police department,” she said. “So that’s really important that that we have something along those lines, even though we can assume that that’s not acceptable.”
Even with those pieces of legislation looking unlikely to pass this session, Kunesh said there are others that are even less farther along in the discussion. Legislation such as requiring police officers to carry liability insurance, for example, “would be really, really hard to pass,” Kunesh said. “In speaking with different police agencies and police folks, the message that they could lose their pension fund, could lose millions and millions of dollars, rather than municipalities paying them out, sends a really strong message. And I think the police agencies are very concerned about that, in that they all right, they’re seeing the number of people that are going into policing careers, dropped drastically. They are having a hard time recruiting and retaining police officers.”
For the same reason, Kunesh said other proposals, such as ending the statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits, will have a harder time getting passed because of fears that it would deter people from becoming police officers.
Rep. Jamie Long (DFL, District 61B), feels more confident that some police reform will get passed this session.
“I think that the public outcries for change and for improving our public safety systems are strong and loud,” Long said. “And I don’t believe that we’re going to be able to leave session without having made some more progress on improving our systems of policing and restoring more community trust.”
According to Long, the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder sparked an outcry for change which resulted in meaningful legislation last summer, but it didn’t go far enough.
“We know that our problems haven’t been solved in our state, and that we need to take action,” he said.
According to Long, measures that have been broadly supported include those that were in response to Daunte Wright’s death. The first is a proposal from Rep. Cedrick Frazier (DFL, District 45A) and Rep. Kelly Moller (DFL, District 42A), which would reduce the number of reasons why police pull people over for equipment violation.
“We know that Daunte Wright was pulled over for expired tabs, and for an air freshener. Those really are not public safety threats,” Long said. The new proposal would have police take down the license plate, prompting a reminder to go through the mail.
A second bill was proposed by Long and Rep. Samantha Vang, (DFL, District 40B), involving warrants. Wright likely never received his summons to appear in court, because his address had changed.
“So in those circumstances where we know that individuals might not even know about their court appearances, then we shouldn’t be taking folks into custody,” Long said. “We should just be giving them the information they need so that they can show up for court.”
Other provisions, Long said, have gotten more pushback from law enforcement, including banning no-knock warrants as well as ending qualified immunity, the latter of which has gotten some support across the ideological spectrum.
“There’s a strong conservative argument that having qualified immunity is allowing for violations of the constitution and that that is really not in line with a conservative approach to protecting individual rights and liberties,” Long said of the practice of protecting police officers from civil suits. “But that is one that I think, has raised some more concerns from law enforcement, and I suspect that’s why it didn’t make it in the bill at the end of the day.”
Long said he feels more hopeful that at least some measures will pass the legislature, despite resistance by Senate leadership, as happened last summer.
“I think it’s unfortunate that it’s taken multiple tragedies for us to get to a point where we’re moving them forward. But sometimes, you need to shine a really bright light on the problem before you’re able to act.”