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Minnesota Democrats press GOP for sweeping policing changes

Steve Karnowski
Associated Press

Minneapolis – Gov. Tim Walz has challenged Republican lawmakers to approve a Democratic-backed package of police accountability bills crafted following George Floyd’s death so he can have the “poetic justice” of signing them Friday to celebrate Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the country.

The Minnesota Senate’s GOP majority passed a limited set of measures late Tuesday and early Wednesday that the Democratic governor dismissed as “weak sauce.” He said at a news conference Thursday that he would consider this week’s special session “a total failure” if lawmakers don’t pass the policing overhaul as well as relief for neighborhoods damaged during the unrest that followed Floyd’s death on May 25.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, center, takes a walking tour of some of the artworks commissioned by Springboard for the Arts along University Avenue in St. Paul, Minn., Monday, June 8, 2020.

Leaders of the House Democratic majority scheduled a series of votes for Thursday night to pass their policing measures. But Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he still intends to adjourn Friday night, regardless of whether the two chambers have reached any agreement. The partisan split in Minnesota mirrors the divide in Congress over policing reform.

“If destiny and history is not raining down on Minnesota today and tomorrow, I don’t know what is,” Walz said. “The image of us and the Senate walking away from systemic change on Juneteenth adds to the legacy of what the rest of the world is looking at here. It is unacceptable. … And the poetic justice and the decency of being able to sign those bills on Juneteenth to make a change in this state is pretty obvious.”

Gazelka told reporters the governor’s comments shocked him. He said Republicans have focused on policing ideas that both sides can support instead of proposals that won’t pass, and that most Minnesotans support their local police, with exceptions in Minneapolis.

He said negotiations were continuing.

The Republican leader said Minnesotans are upset about the “lawlessness” during some protests over Floyd’s death and Walz’s slow response, and for allowing protesters to tear down a Christopher Columbus statue on the Capitol grounds.

The People of Color and Indigenous Caucus developed the Democratic package, and caucus members joined the governor in complaining that their community was shut out of the process of drafting the Senate’s legislation. Walz said three of his cabinet members were given only three minutes each to testify at a committee hearing.

Democratic Rep. Rena Moran, of St. Paul, said she considered the GOP package an insult.

“We are in a moment in time here in Minnesota to do the right thing, to hear the voices of the people – black people, indigenous people, Asian people, Latino people, brown and black people from across the world, and white people,” she said. “This is not a black issue. This is not a people of color issue. This is a world issue.”

The 22 House proposals are wrapped into three bills on the themes of “Reclaiming Community Oversight,” “Reforming Accountability” and “Reimagining Public Safety.” It includes several proposals that Republicans have ruled out, including having the state attorney general prosecute all police-involved deaths and restoring voting rights for felons.

The Senate package consists of five modest proposals that partially overlap some House proposals, including banning the use of chokeholds and neck restraints, mandating a duty for officers to intervene and report when they witness another officer using excessive force, and providing help for officers recovering from traumatic events.

Rep. Carlos Mariani, of St Paul, who chairs the House public safety and criminal justice reform committee, said getting rid of the bad apples in policing requires Senate help to grow a healthy new tree.

“I call on them to stop ‘coming small’ to the table,” he said. “They have small stuff, it’s OK. I can do that small stuff. Most of us can do that small stuff. That’s not the issue. Stop coming in small. Let’s have the conversation about the tree. I call on the Senate to see the tree, to change the system, and to join the people who want to begin growing a healthy tree.”