Minnesota state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, of Alexandria, left, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of Nisswa, are among state GOP legislators who have signaled that they feel policing issues are a Minneapolis and St. Paul issue. (Forum News Service)

The killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day in Minneapolis triggered a national and even global reaction, bringing attention to long-simmering issues around policing and racism in society.

Calls to address some of those issues have reached Congress, city halls, and state Legislatures, including Minnesota’s. Yet for many Republican legislators in St. Paul, the problems with policing aren’t global or even national. Repeated statements by GOP leaders at the Capitol make it clear they see the problems with policing in very specific terms — as a Minneapolis issue, a narrative that fits a broader and well-worn election theme of pitting Minnesota’s biggest cities against suburban and rural parts of the state.

“I talk to a lot of people around the whole state and the vast majority of people that I talk to around the state are very appreciative of the police that they work with,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said last week. “I hear very little negative, other than in Minneapolis and a little bit of St. Paul. I’m not saying there’s none. But the relationships I hear about in most places in Minnesota are positive.”

When the Senate GOP lead on criminal justice issues, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, expressed his reluctance to limit binding arbitration in police contracts — a key plank of the policing agenda put forward by DFL lawmakers during the Legislature’s recently concluded special session — he said it was because it is a problem primarily in Minneapolis, caused by Minneapolis leaders.

“I’m not going to give the city council of Minneapolis a pass,” said Limmer. “They knew of police officers who were not getting the grade that they should. Why didn’t they make that an issue when they signed those collective bargaining agreements?”

And on Tuesday, when three GOP senators called on the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department, they said it was because they didn’t believe state of Minnesota’s Human Rights Department was capable of conducting a fair probe based on statements made by its commissioner — while also blaming calls by Minneapolis City Council members to dismantle and recraft the department for the spate of shootings that occurred in the city over the weekend.

“I fear for the citizens of Minneapolis, I really do,” said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, one of the three GOP lawmakers who signed the letter to the Justice Department. “When you lose your law enforcers, the enforcers end up being the criminal aspect, and I think that’s now being seen.”

Trying to make ‘defund’ a defining issue

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic halted much of the work of the Legislature earlier this year, Republican lawmakers had attempted to make an issue of crime in the Twin Cities and what they described as an anti-police response from local politicians.

“Minnesotans are worried about the increase in crime, and, unfortunately, there’s been a reluctance by our city leaders to take meaningful steps to address it,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said in February.

Minneapolis Police Officer Federation President Bob Kroll joined Republican House members at the February news conference addressing growing crime in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“This is not just an issue for residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul,” Daudt continued. “We all represent constituents who travel to the cities to visit family and friends, who work, who go to sporting events, who go to concerts. And they all worry about their safety.”

Since the death of George Floyd, Republicans have been supportive of some changes to police accountability. At the same time, they’ve also been pushing more partisan themes, including making an issue of DFL elected officials’ response to street violence in the wake of the killing and calls by some activists and Minneapolis council members to defund the police. While national opinion polls show majority support for police reforms, defunding the police draws wide opposition.

The conservative Freedom Club has begun a regional ad campaign with the headline “Democrats Are Trying To Defund the Police,” and GOP lawmakers tried to link the issue to DFLers during the special session — despite the fact that most police funding comes from local and federal dollars, not state funds.

In the closing hours of the session, as DFL and GOP negotiators exchanged offers, Gazelka stressed that his party would never agree to defund the police, even though Democrats hadn’t proposed anything related to the idea. “The House never had defund the police in its bills,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “We didn’t agree to take it out because it was never there at all.”

Not just a big-city issue,

say DFLers

DFLers and Gov. Tim Walz have pushed back on the notion police accountability is primarily a big city issue, especially a Minneapolis issue, noting that protests occurred throughout the state, including in cities across Greater Minnesota.

Rep. Carlos Mariani, the St. Paul DFLer and chair of the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform committee, described the death of George Floyd as “an issue that drove thousands of people across color lines, geography and gender to exercise their First Amendment rights in the streets of various communities throughout our region to demand justice.”

Speaking at a midweek press conference with Walz, state Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington stressed that a use-of-force study by a working group he co-chaired found that 60 percent of the 100 deadly force encounters that occurred in the state over the last five years took place in Greater Minnesota.

While the public attention on questionable shootings of Black residents tends to be related to big city incidents, he said, places all over the U.S., not just Minneapolis, have problems with policing and use of force against people of color.

DFLers were also quick to jump on Gazelka for saying that Walz owed an apology to Minnesotans for his handling of the violence in the two cities, including to “moms out in the suburbs scared to death about what’s happening all around them.”

Said Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury: “Right now, what I’m hearing loudly, and I would add clearly, from suburban moms and others is that we need to do a much-better job of protecting our Black communities and our Black neighbors.”

Last week, after Walz and members of the Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus dubbed Senate GOP policing bills “weak sauce,” Gazelka said that while the Senate is working on policing, it is also concerned with what he termed lawlessness exhibited in the arson, looting and vandalism that did damage to parts of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“We all agree that the death of George Floyd was tragic,” Gazelka said, noting that no one disagrees that the four police officers involved should have been fired and that Derek Chauvin, who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes, should face charges. “But I also feel the one issue they want to not talk about is what happened after the death of George Floyd, because that’s another big issue that I’m having to address as majority leader.”

“I think people are upset about that too,” Gazelka continued, including what he has criticized as a slow response by Walz in activating state police and national guard when it was clear Minneapolis had lost control.

DFLers have not been surprised by the GOP’s focus on Minneapolis. Kent, whose suburban district is one of the GOP targets for a pickup this November, said she expects the GOP will attempt to tie her to more-liberal politicians and more-liberal policies emanating from the cities, including defunding the police. “Campaign lit is what it is,” she said.

But some have been more aggressive in criticizing the tactic. “Please remember that the Republican party is the party that in numerous campaigns across the state, including (for) Susan Kent’s opponent, put out literature that featured the Black guy from Minneapolis: Jeff Hayden; the gay guy from Minneapolis: Scott Dibble; and a Jewish guy: our mayor,” Minneapolis DFL Sen. Scott Dibble said at a press conference.

“It wasn’t just dog whistling,” Dibble continued. “They put it right out there: racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic; fear of people different and ‘othering’ us in order to win elections.”

Peter Callaghan covers state government for MinnPost.

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