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As state reels from another fatal police shooting, more reform measures headed to House Floor

House Photography file photo
House Photography file photo

The long shadow of two fatal police shootings in the Twin Cities fell over the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee as it met Wednesday to consider four bills on police reform and accountability.

There is the ongoing trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin charged in the wrongful death of George Floyd in May 2020.

There is Sunday’s fatal shooting of Daunte Wright by a now-former Brooklyn Center police officer, who has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.

There are the ongoing street protests in the Twin Cities, some in violation of mandatory curfews, to demand authorities make systemic changes to how policing is done in this country.

These events have led to a renewed urgency and calls for passing police reform legislation, including a Monday statement from the United Black Legislative Caucus, “demanding Republicans in the Legislature, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, and the Minnesota Sheriffs Association get on board and support legislation to help build trust, create transparency, and hold officers accountable.”

Gov. Tim Walz has also demanded that the Legislature take action and several House and Senate DFL lawmakers have called for such legislation to take priority over moving omnibus bills and beginning budget negotiations.

However, calls for such reforms have come primarily from DFL lawmakers.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-East Gull Lake) announced Tuesday the Senate would be holding fact-finding hearings and receive public input on police reform and accountability within two weeks but would not promise that specific legislation would be heard in those meetings. Passing budget bills before the Legislature adjourns by May 17 is his top priority, he said.

Judiciary panel hears four police reform bills

Against that backdrop, the judiciary panel considered four police reform and accountability proposals, approving three and hearing the fourth for informational purposes only.

“These bills are small parts of a larger effort that we’re all engaged in together to try to align our laws to help build true community safety for all the people of our state,” said Rep. Aisha Gomez (DFL-Mpls). “An effort to show that we are listening, that we are trying, that we know the status quo right now is not working for large parts of our communities.”

Here are accounts of the four bills, all of which drew opposition from Republicans who said they would unduly impede police officers from safely performing their duties and protecting the public.

Creating civilian oversight of law enforcement

Sponsored by Gomez, HF640 would modify the Peace Officer Discipline Procedures Act to permit local units of government with more than 50 officers — about 40 agencies in Minnesota — to establish law enforcement citizen oversight councils.

The bill would change the powers and duties of existing “civilian review boards,” by renaming them “civilian oversight councils” and give them authority to “conduct an investigation into allegations of peace officer misconduct and retain an investigator to facilitate an investigation.”

An amendment successfully offered by Gomez changed the original language requiring the establishment of civilian oversight councils to making them optional.

Members adopted a delete-all amendment, then approved the bill on an 11-6 party-line vote and sent it to the House floor. There is no Senate companion.

Expedited release of deadly force video footage

HF1103, sponsored by Rep. John Thompson (DFL-St. Paul), was approved in March by the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee, and provisions in the bill are included in that committee’s omnibus bill.

Law enforcement agencies would be required to release body camera recordings of deadly force incidents to the deceased’s family and representatives within 48 hours of the incident.

Withholding such body camera recordings from the person’s family and representatives because the data is an investigatory record or compiled for law enforcement purposes would also be prohibited.

The committee approved the bill, as amended, on a 10-6 vote and sent it to the House floor. Rep. Erik Mortensen (R-Shakopee) was the sole Republican voting in favor of the bill. The companion, SF807, sponsored by Sen. Omar Fateh (DFL-Mpls), awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

Eliminating police officer civil and criminal liability immunity

Under state and federal law, a police officer’s actions are typically protected by qualified immunity, which limits the officer’s criminal liability when exercising his or her judgment while performing official duties in good faith.

HF1104, also sponsored by Thompson, would eliminate that qualified immunity.

The bill would:

  • create a civil cause of action under state law to permit a person to sue a police officer by alleging that the officer deprived the person of constitutional rights;
  • permit the court to award attorney fees and costs to the person bringing the suit if that person prevails;
  • permit the court to award attorney fees and costs to the defendant officer if the court determines the suit was frivolous; and
  • establish a two-year statute of limitations to bring claims.

The committee approved the bill on a party-line vote of 9-7 and sent it to the House floor. The companion, SF580, also sponsored by Fateh, awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

Limiting the authority for police officers to stop or detain drivers

Another proposal, which has not yet been officially introduced, would limit peace officers’ authority to stop or detain drivers for certain motor vehicle equipment violations.

Rep. Kelly Moller (DFL-Shoreview) and Rep. Cedrick Frazier (DFL-New Hope) developed the language.

Frazier hopes the proposed changes can prevent future tragedies such as the death of Daunte Wright after a traffic stop for a vehicle equipment violation.

“We don’t need to have law enforcement making these types of stops. We don’t need to create these types of interactions that we are seeing go in a totally wrong direction that escalate to the point of death of unarmed Black men,” he said.

A police officer would not be able to stop or detain the operator of a motor vehicle solely for these offenses:

  • operating an unregistered vehicle;
  • license plate illumination;
  • muffler required/exceed motor vehicle noise limits;
  • windshield prohibitions/windshield wipers required;
  • restrictions on mirrored/glazed windows;
  • license plate tabs;
  • unsafe equipment;
  • headlamps and rear lamps; or
  • turn signals.

These prohibitions would not apply to commercial vehicles, nor would they prevent a police officer from stopping a vehicle operating under clearly dangerous conditions, such as without any functioning headlights or tail lamps.

Studies in all areas of the country show that traffic stops are disproportionately experienced by non-white drivers, Moller said, and this legislation is a step toward bringing about fairer treatment for these drivers.

“This is a carefully crafted bill to decrease racial disparities in police stops while still ensuring public safety,” she said.

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