ST. PAUL — Lawmakers in the divided Minnesota Legislature on Wednesday, July 1, pursued substantially different steps to investigate and respond to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the civil unrest that followed.
A Senate committee took testimony on the "lawlessness events" that followed Floyd's killing and protests in Minneapolis and St. Paul. A handful of business owners shared stories of how their stores were burned or looted in late May at the Senate's first fully in-person hearing in months.
Meanwhile, a House panel again took up a slate of policing law rewrites and reiterated that Minnesotans were calling on the Legislature to advance substantial criminal justice reforms.
The contrast in committee discussions comes just over a month after ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for eight minutes as Floyd and others pleaded for him to stop. The killing fueled protests and calls for reform around the country and around the world.
Lawmakers last month had an opportunity to pass changes to Minnesota's policing laws in response to the death, but failed to reach an agreement and the GOP-led Senate adjourned. Now, lawmakers are expected to be called back for another special session and while they found areas of agreement in how to respond to Floyd's killing last month, it wasn't clear that they'd be on the same page in July.
In the Senate, lawmakers on the transportation and judiciary committees spent more than four hours speaking with a handful of business owners who'd had their businesses looted or burned down and they said they would spend weeks exploring how riots led to arson fires and damage to 1,500 storefronts in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“The issue that I am trying to shed a light on is the rioting and the looting and the violence, the criminal activity that you folks have had to live through,” Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said. "This entire situation cannot be solved by simply talking about one topic such as police reform. There is a whole lot more going on here than just the Minneapolis police department and it is my hope that by having a set of hearings on one of those issues, that maybe we’ll get close to the truth."
The panel's direction and leaders' actions in showing a 18-minute long video of the fires, looting and seizing of the Minneapolis Police Department's third precinct irked Democrats on the panel, especially members who represent the affected areas. They called on Republican Senate leaders to focus not just on the nearly $500 million in damage from the civil unrest and instead remember why demonstrators and others took to the streets in the first place.
"I don't know what's going to happen with these hearings, I wish I could tell you today that something is going to come out of these hearings," Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, D-Minneapolis, said. "We want reform, a significant reform of our law enforcement system."
All legislative seats will be on the ballot in November and some members of the panel suggested the discussions were intended to be a campaign issue.
For the business owners who came before the panel, the pain of having their livelihoods be damaged or destroyed was palpable. Jim Stage, who owned Lloyd's Pharmacy in St. Paul, broke down in tears as he showed lawmakers a photo of his family standing in front of the pharmacy, which had been set ablaze and later leveled.
“It’s a tragic thing that happened but I forgive the people that did it and we’re hoping to have Lloyd’s Pharmacy again,” Stage said, noting he faced $3 million in damage to the building and stolen or destroyed property.
In the House, Democratic members of the criminal justice committee again reviewed a proposal to re-write policing laws. Some of the measures gained traction with the Republican-led Senate, but most failed to gain support there before that body adjourned last month.
"Hopefully sooner rather than later we'll have legislation around police accountability," Rep. Carlos Mariani, D-St. Paul, said. "There are core Minnesota values around treating people with respect in life that is not a partisan issue."
Republicans on the committee said they hoped to keep working on the proposed reforms, but had concerns about setting statewide requirements for police departments when the issue that prompted the calls for change came from Minneapolis.
“It’s up to the local communities, the locals decide what they want, the state gives guidelines,” Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, said. “One-size-fits-all does not work."
Gov. Tim Walz has said he could call lawmakers back to the Capitol to discuss COVID-19 response, policing law changes and other unfinished business as early as next week.