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Owatonna’s Preston Meier, seen here handling the ball during his freshman season with the Huskies in the spring of 2019, recently took part in the Top 100 Rising Stars showcase in Westfield, Ind. In seven total games, he scored 14 goals and handed out seven assists. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press, File)

Local departments, legislators express support for police reform

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.

While de-escalation is already a vital part of training at the Owatonna Police Department, Chief Keith Hiller said that he is concerned about some of the language when it comes to responding to a violent individual who isn’t posing as a threat to the peace officer or others.

“We just had an incident last week where a family called because an individual was clearly suffering from an acute mental health episode and was destroying their house,” Hiller said. “The family called in crisis and wanted help, but under the new standard all we could do is use our de-escalating efforts and crisis communication to bring this person to a negotiable level as they did thousands and thousands of dollars worth of damage to their family’s home.”

Hiller said that the police tried to engage crisis intervention mental health workers to the scene, but that the workers declined to come because the individual had a reputation of being violent and aggressive.

“We would never go in and just grab someone, but under this new language we really have to take a step back and hope they don’t hurt themselves,” Hiller said. “Between balancing the law and our presence alone possibly escalating a situation, the potential for liability against law enforcement is very real to use. We are really going to have to re-evaluate how we respond to those types of calls.”

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.

Local effects

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.”

In Owatonna, Hiller said that he felt the legislation is necessary to advance the profession and that he was happy to see policies included that are already common procedures at the Owatonna Police Department.

“The Owatonna Police Department is rather progressive and nearly meets all the proposed reforms,” Hiller said. “I think it validates the police in Owatonna — we really strive for excellence and meet the 21st century policing model and all progressive measures and professional standards.”

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 timed, 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.

County prepares for Election Day with additional CARES Act funding

As Election Day looms, Minnesota counties are trying to prepare for the unknown in the terms of how voting will looking in the era of COVID-19.

Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, $400 million was set aside as a part of the Help America Vote Act to “prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 Federal election cycle.”

There is some money for Steele County, according to Laura Ihrke, the county auditor, during Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting.

“Steele County has money available from the CARES Act to help with elections in the amount of $33,438.05,” she said. “Some of that will be allocated to the cities and townships, which will leave us with $15,136.65.”

While Ihrke said that the money left over specifically for the county should be enough to cover any costs needed to provide personal protective equipment-related expenses to ensure election judges and everyone coming to vote are protected. And, she added, her office is hoping to have enough to look into a new piece of equipment specifically for Election Day.

“We want to look into getting a mail ballot opener to speed things alone,” Ihrke said. “We will see an increase in mail ballots this year.”

Earlier this year, Ihrke said that she has seen more requests for mail-in and absentee ballots than she has at this time during any other election year. Mail-in voting has been a hot topic on the political scene following the COVID-19 pandemic, with one side saying it’s important to protect the health of the voter and the other side saying it’s important to protect the security of voting. Regardless, Ihrke assured the commissioners that there will be a larger number of mailed in ballots than they have seen before.

Though Commissioners Greg Krueger and Rick Gnemi shared concerns that the CARES Act funding specific to voting was less than they had imagined, County Administrator Scott Golberg said that any leftover dollars from the CARES Act could be put toward equipment.

“It just has to meet the eligibility criteria,” Golberg said, adding that protecting voters and election judges fall into the parameters of what the funding is for.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey on Wednesday ordered that indoor bar areas be closed in the state’s largest city as coronavirus cases have surged in young adults. (Alex Voulgaris on Unsplash)

Busho retires after 40 years in the cycling industry

In 1975, Wayne Busho bought a bike. It was nothing crazy special for the time, just a 10-speed bicycle that would help get him from point A to point B, but little did Busho know that purchase would be the very thing to put him on his vibrant and beloved career path.

“I didn’t really think it would turn into this,” Busho laughed as he pulled up a chair in the office of Straight River Sports in Owatonna. “I really didn’t.”

A couple years after buying his bike from Al Martin, Busho came to work full time for Martin in his bike shop, Martin’s Cycling Fitness. Since then, Busho and the bike shop have seen multiple locations throughout Owatonna and four different owners. On Friday, Busho will hang up his wrench and tire pump, retiring after 41 years in the business.

Over the last four decades, Busho has done it all — from sales to repairs to customer service. While he easily is considered Owatonna’s very own bike guru today, Busho said it wasn’t always the case.

“Back then I knew nothing,” Busho said about when he was first hired by Martin in 1979. “Al and Cathy really took a chance on me, and it’s great that they did. They really mentored me along the way.”

Martin believes that bringing Busho on as his first-ever hire at the shop was one of the best business decisions he ever made.

“He was just a young kid, but I was a young kid, too,” Martin said. “As we were growing as a business we needed somebody, and Wayne was the man. I had seen the loyalty in him and honestly he was a natural at it. He’s like a brother to me now.”

In the beginning, the shop focused on selling bicycles and mopeds before transitioning to other accessories, clothing, cross country skis, and eventually to electric bikes after Martin sold and the store became Straight River Sports. It was then that Busho worked for Ann Paulson and Katie McIntosh, two more influential employers.

“The electric bikes are really the future,” Busho said, adding that Paulson sold Straight River Sports so she could focus on selling electric bikes in the Twin Cities. “A lot of things about this industry are becoming more technical, and I’m more of an old school guy.”

Busho’s love for a traditional bicycle spans beyond his impressive career. In fact, Busho loves biking so much that he has not owned a vehicle for 20 years.

“It just got to be stupid that I had a car,” Busho laughed, saying that he lives on a couple blocks from work, the grocery store and his family. “It has been really liberating, the freedom of having a bike. I have saved a lot of money by not owning a car and it just really works for me.”

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Busho said that the shop — which is now owned by Andy Boe — has never been busier. At first he said he was skeptical about what the public health crisis would do to the industry, admitting that he feared he would simply be laid off because of a lack of work, but the public proved him wrong by buying up whatever bikes and accessories Straight River Sports could provide and keeping Busho and the other employees on their toes.

“The truth is, when you work in retail you have to be here a lot, we don’t get as much time to go out and be on our bikes as much as we’d like,” Busho said. “So I’m retiring because I can.”

Though bikes inadvertently become his passion over the years, Busho said he feels confident leaving the shop and knowing that Owatonna’s biking community will be taken care of by Boe and the rest of the staff.

“This industry is always changing and you need new, young blood in here,” Busho said. “These are bright young men with good heads on their shoulders and they are passionate about their work. Owatonna is in good hands.”

Martin said he isn’t surprised that Busho cares so deeply not only about the biking community, but the town he’s lived in his whole life.

“Wayne was loyal to me and loyal to the shop,” Martin said. “But he is most loyal to Owatonna. He loves Owatonna and has don’t things to preserve it — that’s what has kept him there all these years.”

Looking into retirement, Busho said he hopes to work on personal projects here and there. When asked if he would consider continuing any work with the biking community, Busho said he wasn’t sure, but would definitely like to see the trail system expanded to the old bridge in Clinton Falls as well as a connection all the way to Faribault.

Overall, though, Busho said he is simply looking forward to putting out a “gone riding” sign and spending time doing what he loves more: riding a bike.