ST. PAUL — A top Minnesota senator on Tuesday, April 13, said the chamber would take up "fact-finding" hearings on police accountability and civil unrest following the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright, but said he wouldn't promise to pass legislation following calls for action.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said the Senate would schedule hearings within the next two weeks aimed at sizing up Minnesota police accountability measures passed into law last summer and reviewing the impacts of civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd.
Senate Republicans' newly scheduled hearings come after weeks of mounting pressure from Democrats who control the state House, especially legislators of color. The DFL legislators said last summer's package didn't go far enough to make policing practices more transparent and equitable in Minnesota. Since January, House committees have passed bills on the release of police bodycam footage, creation of civilian oversight councils, efforts to end qualified immunity and remove from the police force officers with ties to white supremacist groups.
Gazelka announced the hearings two days after Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by a Brooklyn Center police officer during a traffic stop on Sunday. The officer who shot Wright, as well as the Brooklyn Center chief of police, both resigned effective immediately on Tuesday.
"We are tired, very tired of losing Black lives. It’s been a traumatic experience for our communities. We continue to grieve together. We’re still dealing with the trauma of reliving George Floyd’s killing," Rep. Cedrick Frazier, D-New Hope, told reporters. "So I hope they take all these things seriously and pass legislation that shows Black lives matter."
Legislators of color on Tuesday called on legislative leaders and the governor to suspend budget talks until the bills could be taken up and passed in the House and Senate.
But Gazelka said Democrats, and others, should temper their expectations. While the Brooklyn Center shooting death had spurred a "powder keg" environment in the Twin Cities, Gazelka said passing the proposals might not tame Minnesotans' anger or frustration. And he held up proposals passed last summer as a "balanced" set of legislative fixes.
The laws banned police chokeholds, required officers to intervene if they saw colleagues using deadly force and required additional training around the use of force.
"I'm not promising that we're going to do more reform. I'm promising to listen to see if something is warranted," Gazelka said Tuesday. "I don't want to promise something that people have an expectation that we would get it done during this session. I am not saying it's impossible. I'm just saying we are in the last five weeks and we just started passing budget bills."
Lawmakers have a constitutional duty to approve a two-year budget by June 30. Without a deal, the state could face a government shutdown.
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The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association following Wright's death said the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's investigation ought to be able to move forward before political leaders or others weigh in. The group prior to the shooting said Democrats' proposals were nonstarters, but on Monday said the MPPOA was "dedicated to continued conversations at the state capitol on bettering community trust, policing practices, and our important profession to keep communities safe.”
Members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus and the United Black Legislative Caucus on Tuesday said they'd move police accountability bills forward in the House and hoped to draft legislation aimed at ending traffic stops for non-safety-related violations like outdated license tabs.
At an unrelated news conference on Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz addressed Wright’s death, saying that in Minnesota’s communities of color, specifically Black communities, “There is anguish, there is the belief that they’re not being heard.”
Walz previously railed against the politically divided Legislature for not passing police reforms this legislative session, but on Tuesday said he was feeling “hopeful” after having a “very candid” conversation with the bipartisan leaders of the Minnesota House and Senate earlier that day.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan at the same news conference specifically called on Gazelka to hold hearings and move legislation. The Legislature has been in session full-time since January.
“There is deep pain in our communities and Sen. Gazelka talks about reconciliation and healing,” Flanagan said. “I have to tell you that I think one of the most powerful action steps that he could take toward reconciliation and healing is to hold these hearings and give people a chance to have a voice.”
At the same news conference, Walz said that the state as of Tuesday afternoon wouldn't issue a curfew for the Twin Cities metro area as it did Monday. Local officials in Minneapolis, St. Paul and surrounding cities issued curfews of their own beginning at 10 p.m. Tuesday. Walz said that four injuries were reported from protests held Monday night, but no deaths or arson fires.
Law enforcement officials on Monday evening reportedly deployed chemical irritants, which Walz said were intended to disperse the crowd of approximately 300 protesters who were out past curfew. Of those 300, Walz said there were about 100 “committed people who wanted to be arrested and they got their wish.” Walz said that he recognizes that chemical irritants if deployed by police indiscriminately “simply make the crowd angrier.”
The governor added that the Minnesota National Guard remained active throughout the metro, and would be through the end of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial, as had been the state’s plan.
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