Racial tensions at forefront of Minn. Legislature debate over police

A tense overnight debate on police accountability measures heightened the racial divisions between Minnesota's senators of color and predominantly white Republicans who control the Senate.

The GOP passed a set of new regulations on police after the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 when a now-fired Minneapolis police officer held him to the ground for nearly nine minutes by pushing his knee into Floyd's neck. The incident has sparked worldwide outrage, unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and has required state lawmakers to focus on police changes in their special session.

Senate Republicans' proposals ban chokeholds and other neck restraints, force police to report use of deadly force to the state, and require cops to intervene when a fellow officer uses inappropriate force. Those policies are not controversial, but Republicans have rejected more far-reaching police accountability proposals from Democrats.

During the overnight debate, the five DFL senators of color said Republicans ignored them when crafting their police bills. One by one, they said they had not been consulted.

"I’m tired sick and tired of asking people each and every day that if you put law enforcement in community that’s supposed to protect me, that they don’t put their boot on my neck, that they don’t shoot me, that they don’t choke me," said state Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, who is one of only two black senators.

Republicans pushed back, saying they did not need to consult with lawmakers of color before putting forward their proposals.

"I didn’t think I had to get permission from four or five people to present a law that applies to the entire state of Minnesota," Senate Judiciary Chairman Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said.

"Does he have to get permission? How about being thoughtful and considerate of your colleagues?" state Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, responded.

During the debate, state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray asked the four other members of the Senate's People of Color and Indigenous Caucus if Republicans had contacted them about ideas for the police legislation. After all answered no, Torres Ray turned her questioning to Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.

"Senator, I would like to ask if our opinion and the work that we do here with you here actually matters to you," said Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis.

Gazelka said he had been to Minneapolis and St. Paul a handful of times since Floyd's death and the resulting unrest.

"I just go back to five years ago when democrats had the House, the Senate and the governor and none of these things were done," said Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.

Wednesday, Democrats who control the House advanced their own criminal justice and police accountability legislation through the Ways and Means committee and onto the full House floor. Floor votes could be held as early as Thursday evening.

The DFL-backed proposals would put the attorney general in charge of all police killing investigations, allow cities to force police officers to live within city limits, overhaul the police arbitration process, and restore felons' right to vote after leaving prison.

But the Senate debate was emotional for members of both parties.

"I definitely think that the Senate is kind of broken," Limmer said just before midnight, as the Senate neared a vote.

"I suggest to Sen. Limmer this country is broken," Hayden said. "It’s been broken for a very long time in my eyes."