It’s one of the topmost issues for Minnesotans right now, right next to inflation and the price of gas but not necessarily in that order. Public Safety. And it has been one of the most contentious between Republicans and Democrats. This year’s omnibus bills combined Judiciary, Data Privacy and Public Safety.
The committee met but could not come to an agreement in major areas. The Senate wanted to focus on crime while the House had numerous proposals that it wanted to see survive in an omnibus bill in some form.
As in the past, the House bill was much longer (250 pages minus repealers) than the Senate bill. (74 pages). They were two different bills with distinctly different policy postures.
- Current law allows convicted criminals to serve only 2/3 of their sentence in custody. The Senate wanted to change this to 3/4. The Senate later gave up this provision in the face of House opposition.
- The Senate wanted to add a BCA forensic scientist for fentanyl. This came as a senate floor amendment and other areas had to be reduced to accommodate it. They couldn’t agree on which ones.
- Surreptitious Filming. This provision came from a House Bill authored by Rep. Tim Miller. It changed the statute of limitations on a case where people were filmed without their knowledge, but the film only comes to light later. Recent case law made it important to make changes to the language and they were still working on it when time ran out. The Senate had agreed to it, but after seeing updated language.
- Ignition Lock changes. There was a senate provision clarifying how individuals who were directed to use an ignition lock on their vehicle at sentencing for a DUI conviction about how they would obtain information about which vendor to use. This language was being worked on when time ran out.
They agreed on
- Public Defender Funding. The House and Senate both wanted to increase funding to the state office of the public defender which oversees public defenders throughout the state.
- Funding for changing various provisions of criminal law related to domestic violence and the Governor’s BCA Violent Crime Reduction Support Initiative.
- House provisions on Student data privacy
- Local government licensing data. When someone applies for a local license, their tax returns and bank account statements are private data.
- Non-discrimination based on race or ethnicity in organ transplants,
- expedited post-divorce name changes,
- changes to the safe at home program.
- Eliminating the charge for uncertified copies (online) of court documents.
Two provisions were moved forward in separate bills which passed and were signed into law. One was a change to the Board of Private Detectives licensing which would allow people working for Private Detectives to use their on-the-job training obtained with one employer as a credential that they could use if they moved to another employer. Another provision allowed emancipated minors to get a restraining order against people harassing or stalking them.
In order to understand why this year’s supplemental bill didn’t get anywhere, it’s useful to look at the last few years.
Public Safety used to revolve around a few different topic areas. Corrections, Crime and Punishment, Courts, and Guns. The Corrections bills have usually involved addressing documented problems with Minnesota’s prisons and county jails and trying out new programs to reduce recidivism.
Court issues have had to do with finding ways to streamline the process and funding the courts.
There has been more consensus on Corrections and Court funding than anything else. After that we have areas of sharp ideological disagreement.
Minnesotans have a right to permitted carry of firearms. Permits “shall” be issued unless one is disqualified for stated reasons, such as being a felon and on presentation of a certificate that you have passed a safety, knowledge and range course). In order to purchase a firearm, you must pass a background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and demonstrate the ability to purchase a firearm with either a carry permit or a permit to purchase. Republicans generally would like to keep these laws intact and many support “constitutional carry” which would allow the lawful carry of a firearm, without having to apply and pay for a permit. In contrast, Democrats generally would like regulate guns more extensively, on a continuum from registration and tracking of firearms, to banning the sales of certain firearms, magazines and ammunition.
Firearms law used to be less partisan, and there are individuals in both parties whose views are more mixed. But the trend has led to make it a divisive partisan issue. Given the number of new firearms owners every month in the last few years, it seems like continued access to firearms and the right to carry have wide and growing popularity. Nevertheless, every new mass shooting incident inflames the debate.
In the DFL controlled House, in 2022 there were bills introduced to limit and expand gun rights. But there were no firearms provisions in this year’s public safety bill.
Police training and Discipline
Since the death in police custody of George Floyd, in 2020 and the subsequent deaths of Daunte Wright, Winston Smith and Amir Locke, there have been calls for police reform, in training, procedure and discipline. Of the four cases, only the George Floyd and Daunte Wright cases have resulted in criminal prosecution and conviction of the officers involved.
During the special sessions in 2020 bills were passed that attempted to address aspects of officer and training. Left untouched was an examination of the process of officer discipline which steps on the basic protections given to all public workers, qualified immunity. You can’t get sued while doing your job if you work for the government unless you personally were criminally negligent, which is a pretty high bar. Another problem with police accountability is that police discipline is subject to binding arbitration, another process typical of public sector union jobs. This means that when an officer is disciplined, the employer (usually a city) makes the complaint and the officer goes before a neutral arbitrator, with their union representation. This process is shielded from public view and has come to light when an officer gets media attention in a misconduct case. In some cases, an officer may have been reprimanded for similar offenses but was returned to duty by the arbitration panel. Unions say they are just doing their job, defending members, cities say they can’t get rid of bad officers or make them change their behavior with this system.
Neither republicans nor democrats have wanted to open this can of worms, Democrats because it would betray their union coalition partners and Republicans because of the costs that it would place on cities, if they had to require their officers to buy some kind of liability insurance. Due to the progressive shift of the DFL, Republicans have also moved in on acquiring Law Enforcement as one of their political partners and that has made them less critical of the police. Qualified Immunity and disciplinary Reform is an orphan right now.
The progressive wing of the DFL party has been heavily invested in this view of public safety without police, funding programs like “violence disrupters” in Minneapolis, and reducing the police force. Although they claim they don’t want to defund the police, as early protests demanded, focusing on the non-policing aspects of public safety hasn’t been proven to be an effective way to reduce crime. One of the problems is that police are “first responders” expected to be available 24/7/365 whereas other professionals, such as mental health counselors and social workers are not available on an emergency basis. Minneapolis’ livability has continued to deteriorate as a diminishing number of officers attempt to address crime. While crime continues to grab headlines in the twin cities metro, the topic of public safety will remain highly politicized.