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Proposed changes to police use of deadly force moves forward in House

House Photography file photo
House Photography file photo

A series of measures designed to clarify when police can use deadly force, and the legal oversight of those encounters, were debated, modified and approved by the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division Monday.

The “Reforming Accountability Act” is one of three pieces that comprise “The Minnesota Police Accountability Package,” legislation the division began to consider during a 7-hour meeting June 13, having been introduced the day before by lawmakers seeking fundamental changes to policing in response to the killing of George Floyd.

The accountability act – SSHF1, sponsored by Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul) – was approved, as amended, by the division on a 10-7 party-line vote, with all DFL members voting in favor of the bill, which now moves to the House Ways and Means Committee.

The companion, SSSF119, is sponsored by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-Mpls) and awaits action by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

The “Reforming Accountability Act” contains four main sections:

  • a provision that would more clearly define when police may use deadly force;
  • a provision to give the attorney general’s office jurisdiction to prosecute cases when peace officers are alleged to have caused an officer-involved death;
  • a provision that would eliminate the need for cash bail for those charged with misdemeanor offenses, other than domestic assault and some driving while intoxicated violations; and
  • a provision to establish, and fund, an Independent Use of Force Investigations Unit within the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to investigate officer-involved deaths.

Mariani said the changes are needed to because injustices like Floyd’s killing have become all too common and must be addressed.

“The repeat of these kinds of things is not an accident,” Mariani said. “It is the obvious outcome of our failure to address systemic issues and build better systems, so that’s what this particular act seeks to do, along with the other acts in this package.”

Rep. Brian Johnson (R-Cambridge), the division’s Republican lead, said he agrees with some reforms the bill seeks, such as the BCA investigating officer-involved deaths, but cannot support the bill because of some of its other provisions, including the change in use of deadly force definitions.

The bill would clarify that use of deadly force in the line of duty is only justified when an officer reasonably believes it is necessary to protect the officer from “imminent” death. Current law uses the term “apparent” death. It would also add a provision that an officer must reasonably believe a person will cause death or great bodily harm to another person unless immediately apprehended, in order for deadly force to be used.

“I have a bad feeling, call it a gut feeling, that the changes in definitions might cost officers their lives because of the hesitation,” Johnson said.

Much of the Monday’s discussion focused on two amendments offered on the bill, one that was adopted and another that wasn’t.

An amendment offered by Rep. Heather Edelson (DFL-Edina) that would require an officer who takes a child into custody and does not release them to communicate with, or take the child to, a juvenile secure detention facility to determine whether the child should be released or detained.

But before detaining the child “the supervisor of the facility shall use an objective and racially, ethnically, and gender-responsive juvenile detention risk assessment instrument.” That assessment would determine the likelihood that a child released would not endanger others and would return for a court hearing, along with a number of other factors.

Edelson said this is a way to be proactive and create trust in communities and with youth. She said sending kids to juvenile detention can often lead them to end up in prison when they get older.

“We’ve talked a lot about trust and creating accountability, and this definitely does that,” Edelson said.

Johnson opposed the amendment and said he has had experience as a law enforcement officer trying to find a bed for a young person who has been detained, and has had to drive hundreds of miles to do so. He said requiring police departments across the state to perform these tasks would further strain them.

“These are some of the things that us in Greater Minnesota have to deal with, we don’t have the same resources you do in the metro area,” Johnson said.

An amendment offered by Rep. John Poston (R-Lake Shore), which would have made the Minnesota attorney general’s office nonpartisan, was defeated.

Poston offered the amendment in response to the bill’s provision giving the attorney general the authority to prosecute officer-involved deaths. He said he’d heard from some county attorneys who don’t have confidence in the office and think it has become too political.

He was supported by several other Republicans. But a number of DFLers opposed the amendment, including Rep. Kelly Moller (DFL-Shoreview), who has worked for the office and said it wasn’t needed because the attorneys there already do a good job and are bound by professional obligation to be fair.

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