ST. PAUL — After a marathon floor debate extending into the wee hours Friday, June 19, House Democrats appeared poised to pass a slate of police and criminal justice reform bills in response to the death of George Floyd -- even though Senate Republicans have said the bills will hit a wall in their chambers.
House Democrats' 19-bill omnibus -- which has bills spanning from a ban on police chokeholds, to enhanced mental health training for officers, to cash bail reform -- comes after the Republican-controlled Senate passed their own five bills earlier in the week. The May 25 death of Floyd, a black man, at the hands of then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, ignited public outcry throughout Minnesota and the country over police brutality, racial bias and systematic racism.
Legislators from the House and Senate say their bills aim to address those systemic problems and need for reform. But there remains little agreement between the divided chambers on how much change is too much, or enough: Republicans say the House's bills go too far, and Democrats say the Senate's bills do not rise to meet the public's demands for reform.
Rep. Carlos Mariani, D-St. Paul, said during Thursday night's debate that the House's sweeping reforms are necessary because "the status quo is not working," particularly for Minnesotans of color.
"I trust I can say that no one in this institution of lawmakers believes that what was done to (Floyd) was something that he or any human being deserves," Mariani said. "That our policies and our system of public safety should produce what it did on that evening on May 25 is what brings us here today."
On the other side of the aisle, House Republicans said the bills went too far, and would impede upon law enforcement officers' ability to keep communities safe. Rep. Tama Theis, R-St. Cloud, said that some reform is necessary, and that her 'no' vote on Thursday doesn't mean she doesn't care, but she felt the omnibus went too far.
"I'm sorry that I can't vote for this bill," Theis said. "But I love my community extremely, just so much, and I just can't do it when I know that what's in here is so far-reaching that it might hurt something that we've been working so hard for."
Both chambers need to concur in order for any bills to reach Gov. Tim Walz's desk for his signature, and the Senate's self-imposed deadline to wrap up June's special session is Friday.
On Thursday's hot and sticky afternoon, demonstrators gathered hundreds of feet away from the Capitol as part of a vigil for Floyd -- one of dozens of demonstrations in the state since Floyd's death on May 25. They chanted calls for the Senate to take up more reforms as some hung posters to a fence keeping members of the public from the Capitol. Restrictions were set on who could enter the building following widespread looting and fires earlier in the month, and the ongoing spread of coronavirus.
A group of lawmakers from Minnesota's legislative and executive branches joined Walz for an emotional Thursday morning news conference, where they called on Republicans in the House and Senate to vote in favor of the bills.
"The business as usual and the weak sauce legislation to get out of town and pretend like you made change ends now," Walz said.
Members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus who carried police accountability bills in the House said the Senate didn't go far enough and didn't adequately take into consideration their input or the input of communities of color when drafting their bills. The Senate bills would ban chokeholds unless in situations where an officer is isolated, has lost a weapon or faces a life or death situation, boost mental health and de-escalation training and set up mechanisms for reporting instances of deadly force. The plans also prioritize the sanctity of life in police model policies and require officers to step in if they see peers using excessive force.
"When I saw the Senate bill, I was insulted," Rep. Rena Moran, D-St. Paul, said. "And so many many more across the community and around the world are insulted that that is what the senators decided to put forward. That has no accountability, no systemic change."
They and other members of the Walz administration called on the Republican Senate leaders to pass the full slate of provisions the POCI caucus wrote and extend the self-imposed deadline to end the special session Friday.
"I call on them to stop coming small to the table," Mariani said. "The POCI proposal, ultimately, is an act of love. It's an act of love."
Walz went further in highlighting the potential historic ramifications of ending the special session without passing additional policing law changes.
"The image of us and the Senate walking away from systemic change on Juneteenth adds to the legacy of what the rest of the world is looking at here," Walz said. "It is unacceptable. We have demanded systemic change, the work has been done, the coalitions have been built and it's our expectation that those bills will make it through the House this afternoon, they will go to the Senate and they will be on our desk."
Senate Majority Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, on Thursday held a news conference of his own to respond to the comments. He touted the measures the Senate passed following tense debates around race and the lack of inclusion of lawmakers of color in that chamber.
“They want to imply that we are doing nothing and that flat out is not true and frankly dishonesty is not good for Minnesota,” Gazelka said. “We’re actually trying to work together. We’re trying to pass things that everybody agrees with."
Gazelka said senators were still in conversations about policing law changes and responses to the "lawlessness" that followed Floyd's death as looting and arson fires sprung up across Minneapolis and St. Paul. Republicans have said they oppose efforts to expand the attorney general's authority to investigate deadly force encounters and allow felons to vote after completing their time behind bars.