After the police killing of George Floyd, state legislators of color led the effort to increase accountability and transparency for the state’s public safety systems. But while the sense of urgency remains, change has been slow to come.
So when police fatally shot Daunte Wright, 20, during a traffic stop on Sunday, a heartbreakingly predictable story unfolded. Protesters joined Wright’s family and friends outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department to call for justice. Once again, the crowd was met by tear gas, rubber bullets, and officers in riot gear. Representative Samantha Vang (DFL-Brooklyn Center), spent the night watching her constituents trying to process their trauma.
“While the community has not finished grieving the loss of George Floyd, we witnessed another young Black man, Daunte Wright, killed by the hands of police,” Vang told Sahan Journal. “This is a human problem that can be fixed by a human solution.”
As an elected official for one of two cities in the state where people of color make up a majority of the population, Vang said she sees an opportunity to lead the effort to rebuild police and community relations. Vang also holds a unique position in combating racism at the legislative level as the chair of the POCI (People of Color and Indigenous) Caucus.
Along with Vang, Minnesota’s DFL lawmakers have been pushing legislation for increased accountability and transparency of the state’s police force. But the bills are moving slowly, and their co-authors are frustrated. They’ve heard their constituents loud and clear, but their Republican colleagues have not.
“No matter what we learn as this situation develops, it is clear that our community is facing a traumatic experience that will cause a lot of pain,” Vang said in a statement Monday. “We must stand together as a community, and focus our energy on maintaining peace while seeking justice.”
Representative Cedrick Frazier (DFL-New Hope) is also a member of the POCI caucus as well as the vice chair of the public safety committee in the Minnesota House. He said that there is nothing in the current legislation that could have prevented Wright’s death.
“The bills that we are carrying are about transparency and accountability for our police officers,” Frazier said. He added that lawmakers should also think about legislation surrounding traffic stops. “We know that officers misuse them as an opportunity to get inside someone’s vehicle. Oftentimes that individual has been profiled by those officers.”
After watching the bodycam footage of Wright’s death, Frazier’s immediate reaction was, once again: “Another Black life lost.”
Frazier called for a halt in budget negotiations until the House passes public safety bills with meaningful changes.
In light of the trial of Derek Chauvin, Frazier said he empathizes with people retraumatized by another police shooting of a Black man.
“I want them to keep exercising their First Amendment right to protest,” Frazier said. But he added that community members should vote for change in the state Senate. “We have a Republican Senate that has not heard one police accountability bill this session,” he said. ” Not one.”
An omnibus bill currently in the state House proposes spending $1.8 billion to fund the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Corrections and other public safety entities through 2022-23. That’s a funding increase of $71 million since the last budget cycle.
The bill includes various criminal justice reform proposals. One of the measures would require law enforcement to release unedited body camera footage of fatal officer-involved shootings within 48 hours to the family of the deceased. The bill also proposes modifying the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which regulates the training of police officers. The proposed modified standards would prohibit police from affiliating with any white supremacist group.
“When we’re bringing in legislation to bring accountability, transparency, and build trust with the community, we’re being labeled as anti-law enforcement,” Frazier said. “The people who are continuing to protect the status quo, what should we call them?”
Representative Kaohly Her (DFL-St. Paul), House majority whip, also expressed frustration that public safety accountability legislation can’t get through a split legislature.
“We have been trying hard to pass legislation that Senate Republicans—and even our House Republicans—are just not moving,” Her said. “I don’t know what else to do to ensure that people understand the urgency of the situation that we’re in now.”
Her sits on a review group that is asking for greater oversight of the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board so that potential for misconduct can be reviewed before a person is killed.
“My heart goes out to the family. But hopes, prayers, and thoughts are not going to fix systemic and structural racism in our police force,” Her said. “ But we will continue to fight to bring justice and police reform for our Black and brown communities.”
Representative Esther Agbaje (DFL-Minneapolis), said historically, structural change rarely happens. Still, she’s playing the long game. For Agbaje, marginalized communities also need resources, access to jobs, education and healthcare.
“We are living in a continuous state of trauma,” Agbaje said. “We’ve been going through this pandemic, we’ve lost so many people to COVID-19. We’ve gone through the murder of George Floyd, the killing of Dolal Idd in December, and now Daunte Wright.”
So Agbaje said she urges her constituents to take care of themselves first, then channel their anger to fight for structural change—from housing to police accountability.
“People are tired. People don’t want to hear the same things happen again,” Agbaje said. “They’re looking at us for change, and I do think it is imperative on us that we push for that change.”
While Agbaje, Frazier, and Her push for legislative change at the state capitol, they hope that the police and National Guard will treat protesters with respect.
“I hope that we treat each other with respect. That we see the hurt that the community is experiencing” Her said. “Our officers must see the difference between protesters and those who are seeking to exploit this situation to cause confusion and harm, and act accordingly.”
Frazier agreed and said that he hopes authority figures will consider the fact that protesters are in the midst of dealing with another traumatic loss.
“The world is watching the state of Minnesota,” Frazier said. “And we are failing. In fact, we’re continuing to show that we haven’t learned anything in a year since the death of George Floyd. What’s going to happen to our younger generation, if the people that can make change aren’t doing anything?”