Police reform advocates and law enforcement groups alike are cautiously welcoming a package of bipartisan reforms as a positive step toward improved police-community relations.
The agreement on police reform was finally reached last week between the DFL, led by Gov. Tim Walz, and Republicans, who control the Senate. It passed before the end of the special session, marking a rare bipartisan triumph at the capitol.
The discussion around police reform was triggered by the late May death of George Floyd. Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin has since been charged with second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the case, and his three fellow officers on the scene stand charged with aiding and abetting murder.
In the wake of Floyd’s death, new questions resurfaced about police practices, especially those of the Minneapolis Police Department. In particular, critics raised questions about use of force policies and how use-of-force and other complaints are handled by departments.
Last month, Walz and the legislature’s POCI (People of Color and Indigenous) caucus proposed nearly two dozen reforms. About half enjoyed bipartisan support, but agreement between Republicans and DFLers over the package fell apart at the last minute. With Walz seeking to extend his Peacetime Emergency Declaration, he was forced to call yet another special session this month. With a month of additional negotiations under their belts, all sides were finally able to reach an agreement they felt comfortable with.
Because local departments are given significant latitude to implement their own policies, the effect of the new bill could vary from department to department. It includes a ban on chokeholds and warrior-style training and provides for additional training and resources for officers.
It also creates a duty to intervene when officers see a colleague acting inappropriately, includes measures designed to improve transparency and accountability in cases of alleged misconduct, and encourages departments to incentivize officers to live in the communities they patrol.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle emphasized that the legislation is just a start. The bill’s lead sponsor in the House, DFL Rep. Carlos Mariani, of St. Paul, said that he believed the bill passed by the House in the previous session was much stronger.
Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, who sits alongside Mariani in the POCI caucus, said that one of the bill’s most significant weaknesses is that it doesn’t do nearly enough to hold bad actors accountable. He expressed hope that future legislation could rectify the issue.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, left the door open to changes. However, he emphasized that further legislation should be tackled in a regular session, to give ample time for legislators to hear from all sides in committee.
Abolish the police?
Though DFLers say they never proposed it, left-wing calls to “abolish police” became a political flashpoint at the capitol and elsewhere. Senate Republicans vowed to oppose any legislation that would defund or abolish police, as supported by members of the Minneapolis City Council.
Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn, who serves as president of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, said that while training and measures to ensure department accountability are important, he’s deeply concerned about what abolishing police” could mean for public safety.
“I think a majority of our citizens want law enforcement, respect law enforcement, we listen to them, they listen to us and we’re there for one another,” he said. “It scares me to think of agencies being totally defunded.”
Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, has taken a more cautious position on police reform than some of his DFL colleagues. Last month, Brand voted against some of the measures proposed by the POCI caucus, and he’s made his opposition to “abolishing the police” clear.
A former St. Peter City Councilor, Brand said that in his experience, local police officers consistently handle themselves responsibly and work to maintain good community relations. He said he’s concerned over reports he’s heard of declining officer morale due to anti-law enforcement messages.
Still, Brand said that he supported most of the recommendations in Attorney General Keith Ellison’s task force on police reform and was pleased to see them included in the final bill. Given that Floyd’s death occurred in Minnesota, Brand said it was crucial that legislators find a way to pass something.
“All of the eyes of the world were on us, and we’ve done something,” he said. “It’s obviously a compromise … but it’s going to make a difference.”
Still, some of the training included in the bill might be harder for some departments to implement than others. Nicollet County Sheriff David Lange said that while his department conforms by the new policies in many areas, changes are needed in others.
“We’ll have to do some work to abide by (the new policies),” he said. “It comes down to time and money.”
In 2017, Minnesota legislators passed a bill requiring all officers to take at least 16 hours of comprehensive de-escalation training. Thanks to a federal grant received by the Rice County Chemical and Mental Health Coalition, Rice County law enforcement have been able to take the much more comprehensive 40-hour training. Among the issues addressed in the course were military reintegration, officer mental health, suicide awareness, cultural sensitivity and youth mental health issues. The goal is to have every law enforcement officer in Rice County take the training before the grant expires.
In addition to mandating additional training on cultural bias and crisis intervention, the new law also requires officers to receive autism awareness training. Dunn specifically cited that provision as particularly welcome and overdue.
Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen, who recently implemented changes to his department’s use of force policies, described the legislation as a “good compromise.” He said that reforms were needed and still may be needed in some areas, citing the officer arbitration process.
“I think a lot of the reforms that they passed were not surprising,” he said. “I think departments understand that some things needed to be revised and changed.”
Northfield Police Chief Monte Nelson, who retires Friday, also said that he wasn’t particularly surprised by any of the measures passed in St. Paul. Nelson said that he understands the urgency behind calls for reform in the wake of Floyd’s death. At the same time, Nelson hopes legislators would be careful not to pass bills that create new mandates without addressing the issue effectively. He also urged legislators to take a holistic approach that looks beyond simply law enforcement.
Nelson said he was reasonably pleased with the legislation and glad to see agreement between law enforcement groups and police reform advocates. He said that the bill was well timied, as his department is in the middle of a policy rewrite.
“I was glad they came together and managed to get something passed, because then we’ll be able to look at the changes and include them in our new policies,” he said. “If they waited another six months, we’d have had our policies written by then.”
Other departments are moving quickly to bring their policies in line with the new mandates. Minnesota Sheriffs Association President Bill Hutton said that he’s on the phone on a daily basis with law enforcement officials across the state.
Hutton said that he appreciated the opportunity to provide feedback on the bill on behalf of law enforcement officials across the state. He said the new legislation will mark just the beginning of an ongoing conversation between law enforcement agencies and those they serve.
“People are looking for change, and sheriffs need to listen,” he said.
Twenty years is a long time to be in limbo.
That’s how long Diane Vonruden’s been waiting for the Rice County Board of Commissioners to come up what she believes is a logical and sustainable plan for a portion of Forest Township that runs along Interstate 35.
The area, which runs from slightly north of Hwy. 19 to County Road 8 lacks infrastructure to support commercial development the county’s draft 2040 Comprehensive Plan proposes. At its southern end, just north of land recently annexed into the city of Faribault, would be hundreds more acres set aside for industrial business. Labeled Urban Expansion-Industrial, it’s likely that land would be eventually become part of Faribault.
Suggesting that much land support commercial and industrial development frightens Vonruden and rural Northfield resident Sam Sunderlin.
During the board’s July 21 board meeting, VonRuden, Sunderlin and former Bridgewater Township Supervisor Kathleen Doran-Norton pointed to what they says are serious deficiencies in the comprehensive plan.
Vonruden also suggested the county has bent over backward to attract development she and many of her neighbors believe detrimental to the serene, ag-centered life she enjoys.
Though the most recent project, Wolf Creek Autobahn, was pulled by developer Neal Krzyzaniak after he lost development rights to a large portion of land off County Road 1. Landowners working with Krzyzaniak requested and obtained zoning changes that would have allowed the project, which included hundreds of condos, a 5.6-mile track, an RV park and associated retail outlets and a restaurant, to move forward.
It was a project roundly criticized by area residents concerned with anticipated increases in traffic and noise, and harm to the environment and area wildlife.
Sunderlin, who said she represented a new nonprofit, Forest Economic Development Association, asked for qualified planning engineers “help determine what is feasible, and provide a very specific plan to ensure that only compatible, inclusive and sustainable developments be allowed as our neighbors.” She said the group also wants detailed definitions of the commercial/industrial zones included in the plan. As now written, two of the zoning designations are very similar.
To help residents better assess the proposal, on which the county must solicit input, Sunderlin asked the board to designate the portions of the draft which differ from its current incarnation.
The group’s final request, she said, was to put the plan on hold.
“People are … concerned about the proposed Commercial/Industrial and will want to comment in person. Under the pandemic guidelines, I believe only 20 people could attend a meeting. None of us want to attend any meetings right now. Please don’t force people to jeopardize their lives by making them show up at a meeting to protect their quality of life,” she said.
The request, said Commissioner Galen Malecha, was reasonable.
“I don’t know how we are going to do it with the pandemic,” he said, adding he’s concered over what he felt was a lack of public input.
In late 2015, the county held three public meetings on what a new plan should include. Nearly 100 attended. There have been several stops and starts since then; some delays were related to new staff working on the project and getting them acclimated to their new jobs.
But Commissioners Jeff Docken and Dave Miller felt that the 2015 meetings permitted residents a good chance to weigh in.
“I think we’ve had great public input, though maybe not enough,” said Miller.
More time, won’t likely make a difference, said Commissioner Jake Gillen. “I don’t know that we’re going to find a lot of more people interested in this document,” he said.
Commissioners did ask county staff heading up the project to beef up the section on housing, a county-wide issue that’s drawn the focus of Faribault and Northfield’s city councils. Once the draft plan is complete, the board will consider how best to receive public input.
The board’s conversation didn’t touch on the speakers’ concerns about the proposal’s suggested increase in commercial property or Doran-Norton’s comment on the planned location.
“It’s peculiar that there’s an expansion of commercial/industrial where folks don’t want it, yet Bridgewater Townships is in the process of incorporating to allow commercial/industrial,” she said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Eight new literacy coaches and two family literacy specialists will start their tenure at Faribault Public Schools this fall, giving students, staff and families more support than ever before.
During the Faribault School Board’s virtual meeting Monday, new Director of Teaching and Learning Tracy Corcoran announced the district received a $1.3 million federal grant through the Minnesota Department of Education to fund the literacy coaches and family literacy specialists for students in pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade.
Through the closed grant, Faribault Public Schools will employ one literacy coach at each of the three elementary schools, one at McKinley Early Childhood Center, two at Faribault Middle and two at Faribault High.
Only about 42% of Faribault students tested met state reading standards in 2019, according to state data. That’s a drop from 43.1% in 2018, and only slightly higher than 2017’s 41.3%. In the 2019-20 school year, 23.5% of the district’s students were considered English Language Learners.
The MDE grant is an extension of the SRCL (Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy) grant the district received for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, but including the pre-kindergarten level is a new opportunity. Because the state extended the SRCL grant to last another year due to the coronavirus pandemic, five previously employed literacy coaches will remain in the district in addition to the eight new literacy coaches through the MDE grant.
“The pre-K through 12 presence really creates that system approach as well as bringing in our families and being able to support them in a new way,” said Corcoran of the MDE grant. “We’re very excited about it.”
The new literacy coaches will work directly with teachers to provide instructional coaching around evidence-based practices. Coaches will focus on the development of skills in disciplinary literacy so students learn to write and read in every subject area. For example, teachers will learn to help students decipher writing and reading from a scientific lens versus a historical lens. Coaches will also work with teachers to align their lessons with state literacy standards to ensure all students acquire the necessary skills to be successful readers and writers.
Corcoran said the roles of the SRCL literacy coaches will evolve a bit with the addition of eight new coaches. SRCL literacy coaches will focus on continued improvement and development in literacy instruction as well as the family partnership component.
In addition to employing eight new literacy coaches, the MDE grant will allow the district to hire two family literacy specialists. One will work with students from pre-kindergarten to grade five, and the other will focus on students in grades six through 12. Both specialists will connect with students’ families to encourage literacy in the home by offering support, understanding and resources.
Although the current pandemic presents unique circumstances that may conflict with family literacy specialists making home visits, Corcoran said they could extend their outreach when it’s safe to do so. The district may also host events like a family literacy night to bring families to the schools. Corcoran said plans are being considered, and the grant allows for flexibility.
One important function of the specialists will be collaborations with cultural liaisons and interpreters to work with families that are learning English as a second language. Corcoran said the district hasn’t completely mapped out the plan in this area, but having the specialists and other systems in place will open the door for more opportunities.
“Even pre COVID, we wanted to work toward building the family engagement component,” said Community Education Director Anne Marie Leland. “[This grant] is going to be a win-win both for the child and adults in that family and support kids for more success.”
The grant period will begin this 2020-21 school year, in conjunction with the district’s back to school plan amid the coronavirus pandemic. The district is working to make the model work with whichever scenario the schools employ in the fall.
Board members showed strong support of the grant after Corcoran’s announcement.
Said Board member Carolyn Treadway: “We could all really use some positive news, so hearing about this grant today is just fantastic.”