Minnesota lawmakers are resuming painful yet familiar police reform discussions in the aftermath of the killing of Tyre Nichols.
State legislators clashed over the scope of such reforms after George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Amir Locke were killed by Minnesota police, only passing accountability bills that both parties could accept. But this year, Democrats control state government and will have full say in how to respond following Nichols’ fatal beating in Memphis. A state licensing board’s potential rule changes could further alter policing in Minnesota.
“It’s a constant reminder of how much work we still need to do in regards to how Black people are policed in this country,” state Representative Cedrick Frazier DFL-New Hope, said of Nichols’ death. “As a legislative body, we always have a sense of urgency to address these issues that are having a disparate impact.”
Frazier, co-chair of the House People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, said lawmakers may again consider banning no-knock search warrants and pretextual stops, where police pull drivers over for minor traffic infractions or equipment violations as a tactic to investigate them. They also might contemplate changes to qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that can be used to shield officers accused of misconduct from civil legal actions.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said police reform bills blocked by Republicans in recent years are “back on the table,” including a no-knock warrant ban and qualified immunity changes.
However, the most dramatic potential reforms may not come from the Legislature this year. The state Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST Board, which licenses officers, will vote next week on a sweeping overhaul of its rules.
“The bottom line is, we’re going through and changing everything,” Board Chair Kelly McCarthy said. “If we pass this rules package and get it to the governor’s desk next week, it’s probably the most significant police reform in Minnesota history.”
The Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which currently can only investigate licensed police officers if they’re convicted of a crime, would be able to investigate any allegation that someone violated state standards of conduct and potentially revoke the officer’s license, she said. The board could also remove someone’s license if the person saw another officer using illegal or excessive force and didn’t intercede and report it.
“It’s removing that wall of silence to where you can’t be silent. Because if we find out that you knew about it and didn’t do anything, you are on the hook, too,” McCarthy said.
The lengthy list of rules changes would also end the requirement that people need to be United States citizens to be police. A candidate would only need to be here legally. It would also include a measure to prevent someone fired in one state from coming to Minnesota and getting a job without the person’s employer knowing that history.
Frazier said DFL legislators will propose funding for the Board as it implements its new rules.
Lawmakers have introduced a handful of police reform measures so far this session, including bills that would prohibit police from affiliating with white supremacist groups, block retaliation against officers who intervene or report excessive force, and expand background check requirements for people looking to become police.
However, many of the controversial changes sidelined in 2020 have not yet been introduced in this legislative session.
The reform package the then-politically divided Legislature passed after Floyd’s murder was a compromise that drew on input from law enforcement, families of people killed by police and business groups. It contained some of the most significant law enforcement policy changes Minnesota had seen in decades, including requiring officers to intervene when there was misconduct, banning chokeholds and warrior-style training, and bolstering independent oversight of law enforcement.
But it did not end qualified immunity, which can protect officers from lawsuits. It also did not block the use of no-knock search warrants, extend the statute of limitations for people to bring a wrongful death lawsuit against officers or require body-camera footage be released to families within 48 hours of a deadly police encounter.
The budget Governor Tim Walz proposed last week would require law enforcement agencies to share body-camera footage from a deadly police encounter with the person’s family within five business days, a spokeswoman for the governor said. But police chiefs could deny that requirement if they have a compelling reason for why it would hinder an investigation.
Governor Walz’s budget includes $6 million for grants to help law enforcement buy body cameras and continues the work of a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension unit responsible for deadly force investigations.
Representative Paul Novotny, the GOP lead on the House Public Safety Committee, said legislators should not make sweeping changes to policing on a “reactionary” basis. He opposes ending qualified immunity for police officers and doesn’t think banning no-knock warrants is a relevant response to Nichols’ death.
“I don’t see how that really applies to this situation,” said Novotny, R-Elk River. “I think that’s a little opportunism.”
Democrats’ attention at the start of this session has been on abortion access and other priorities they know they have the votes to pass, said Representative Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul. But she expects over the next year or two there will be “some really pointed reforms made, but not necessarily a huge slew of reforms.”
“It’s not something that we’re ignoring,” Hollins said of police accountability. “We’re just trying to prioritize getting some of these big bills across the finish line before we start digging into the things that we know are going to be more controversial, and are going to require a little more hand-holding and education for some of our members.”
Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, said she doubts the shift to full DFL control will translate to major reform.
“I have been disappointed in both parties over the last couple years. Because it’s like they wanted to do a tiny little bit and then say, ‘Go away people, go away. Let us work on other stuff,'” Gross said. “If they want to talk about public safety, we have to talk about the public safety of every single person. Not just what white folks—especially suburban and rural white folks—think passes for public safety.”
The state-level efforts are just one piece of advocates’ efforts. They are pressing for local and federal action after the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act failed to become law; it passed the United States House last year but stalled in the Senate.
Dollars need to be tied to the policy changes, said recently retired DFL state Representative Carlos Mariani, who was at the center of state police accountability negotiations in the months after Floyd’s killing. As state leaders shape the next two-year budget, he said that they need to include money for Peace Officer Standards and Training Board investigators and databases, community intervention efforts, and other reforms.
“Policy without resources is almost meaningless,” Mariani warned. “It takes tools to be able to carry out good policy.”