ST. PAUL — Lawmakers this week reignited their calls for law enforcement accountability and reform at the Capitol after a 20-year-old Black man was fatally shot by police during a traffic stop in the Twin Cities metro.
Amid the ongoing trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin and the recent death of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, pressure from the public and lawmakers of color have forced legislative leaders to revisit conversations on police reform in the divided Minnesota Legislature. But responses on either side of the Capitol varied significantly.
Also this week, Gov. Tim Walz extended the state's peacetime emergency for COVID-19 into its 14th month. But with the latest continuation set to run out days before the end of the legislative session, another furtherance of the emergency, and his enhanced authority, could become a key bargaining chip in end-of-session negotiations.
Here's a look at what happened at the Capitol this week and how it could shape the final leg of the 2021 legislative session.
Police reform debate dominates at Capitol
Calls for additional police accountability and transparency reform came to the fore this week following the police killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center police custody.
Lawmakers of color and Democrats who control the Minnesota House of Representatives had pressed for a slate of measures before the Sunday, April 11, shooting. Earlier this year, they said the Legislature needed to do more to ensure that Black Minnesotans were treated fairly by police and peace officers.
And Wright's killing sparked a stronger push for change and renewed trauma for communities of color that had already been grappling with the court trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin in the 2020 death of George Floyd.
Amid the growing public pressure to renew discussions about police practices, top Senate leaders said they would take up "fact-finding" to assess how changes passed last summer had worked and review the damage following civil unrest in the wake of Floyd's death.
"I'm not promising that we're going to do more reform. I'm promising to listen to see if something is warranted," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said during a Tuesday, April 13, news conference.
Members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus along with the United Legislative Black Caucus, meanwhile, said legislators should stop state budget negotiations until the police accountability bills they'd put forward passed. They proposed ending qualified immunity for police officers, making bodycam footage of deadly encounters available to family members to be used in civil proceedings and establishing a citizen oversight council of police departments. Those measures passed through House committees this week.
MORE ON POLICE REFORM TALKS:
- Minnesota Democrats urge a halt to negotiations 'until the budget says Black lives matter'
- Daunte Wright's death prompts hearings, but no promises of reform at Minnesota Capitol
- George Floyd's death spurred reforms in Minnesota. Now legislators have to decide what comes next
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, on Thursday told MPR that she planned to heed those calls and prioritize the police reform bills in the last four weeks of the legislative session.
"We have a responsibility to act. This is happening in Minnesota, the world's eyes are upon us and we have to rise to the occasion and take action," Hortman said. "I am committed to going to the mat to get something done and I hope that the Senate will come to the table and join us."
She said the House would vote on the bills, as well as a plan to limit offenses that could prompt a police traffic stop to exclude certain vehicle equipment violations like having outdated license plate tabs or an air freshener hanging from a rearview mirror.
Lawmakers have a constitutional duty to pass a two-year budget by June 30. If they can't do that, the state enters a government shutdown. The legislative session is set to run through May 17, but lawmakers could return to St. Paul to work in special session if they can't get their work done in time.
Walz on Thursday told reporters that he'd offered his apologies to Wright's mother following his death. And he again urged lawmakers to make additional changes aimed at police accountability.
"We made changes in July, and yet Daunte Wright is still dead. As Mrs. Wright made very clear, we have to do better," Walz said. “We cannot allow this to continue to happen to Black young men. We can’t continue to allow it to happen to anyone."
Walz's emergency powers to come down to the wire
Also this week, Walz on Wednesday requested and the Executive Council granted another 30-day extension of the state's peacetime emergency for COVID-19 and — by extension — his authority to issue emergency orders.
The extension is set to run through May 13, just days ahead of the end of the legislative session. And that could put any additional continuation into play as lawmakers and the governor negotiate a budget. Senate Republicans have included in several of their budget proposals plans to end existing emergency orders or restrict the governor's ability to issue them now or into the future.
So far, GOP lawmakers have been unable to close out the peacetime emergency because the Democratically led House has voted down efforts to end it. But DFL leaders in the House have expressed openness to taking up Walz's emergency powers during budget talks as long as state COVID-19 testing and vaccination systems remain intact.
Lawmakers have weighed other plans this year to transition the state out of the peacetime emergency.