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Minnesota police, Republicans press for special session over restraint law


Minnesota police, Republicans press for special session over restraint law

Sep 14, 2023 | 9:30 am ET
By Michelle Griffith
Minnesota police, Republicans press for special session over restraint law
Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Jeff Potts, surrounded by officers, spoke at a press conference at Anoka County Sheriff's Office on Sept. 13, 2023. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesota Republicans and police officers continue to pressure Gov. Tim Walz and Democrats in the Legislature to make changes to a law that they say has left many law enforcement officials confused and hesitant to do their jobs.

The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association and Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association said during a Wednesday news conference that the new law banning the use of prone restraints on students — meaning placing a student in a face-down position — is putting students’ safety at risk.

They urged Walz to call a special session, even as progressive Democrats last week said they’re against revisiting the law. Doing so, they said in a statement, “would make our schools less safe and remove critical measures that are necessary to protect students” 

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, in a statement Wednesday, said Walz is kowtowing to his party’s left wing. “It’s disappointing that the governor seems to be listening to the fringe minority of his party instead of the bipartisan majority of legislators who want to see this fixed,” she said.

The law at issue states district employees, including police officers contracted with the district — called school resource officers — cannot place students in a hold that inhibits their ability to breathe or call for help. 

What’s not changed, however, is that employees may use these restraints “to prevent imminent bodily harm or death to the student or to another.” House Speaker Melissa Hortman argued in a letter to local law enforcement this week that the law hasn’t actually changed for police. 

Still, the law enforcement groups said the change has caused officers to hesitate about acting in certain situations.

“I don’t want our officers being relegated to being simply someone with a gun who can intervene when there’s an active shooter or violent confrontation taking place,” Blaine Police Chief Brian Podany told reporters during the press conference at the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office Wednesday.

The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association says over 30 law enforcement agencies in the state have pulled their officers from schools. 

They are present in about 30% of all public schools. 

An authoritative study comparing safety data in schools with officers to those without them found that in a hypothetical school of 1,000 students, hiring an SRO leads to six fewer violent in-school incidents – fights, robberies and threats of violence. That works out to about a 30% decline. 

The reduction is accompanied by a steep rise, however, in suspensions, expulsions and referrals to the criminal justice system — up to 90% over the baseline level — that the study authors say is an unacceptable catalyst of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.  

Walz told MPR News on Friday that he didn’t believe a special session was needed “for now.” But Imran Ali, Minnesota Police and Peace Officer general counsel, told reporters Wednesday that the governor’s office “assured” him that Walz is still open to calling a special session.

Only the governor can call a special session, but once convened, only the Legislature can adjourn it. Which in practice often means extended negotiations and an agreement before special sessions. 

Hortman, a Brooklyn Park Democrat, sent a letter to the chiefs of police in Brooklyn Park and Champlin explaining that the Legislature made no changes to the existing use of force standard. Hortman said officers may use force when conducting a lawful arrest and “in executing any other duty imposed upon the public officer by law.”

“Based on the clarity of Minnesota law when viewed in totality, it is my hope that we can get SROs back in schools as soon as possible,” Hortman wrote.

Officers argue that the law creates two standards because officers contracted with districts are bound by the law change, while officers who are not contracted with the district aren’t affected by the change.

This is a concern for Eagan Police Chief Roger New. He has decided to keep his officers in Eagan schools, though contracted officers will no longer cover high school football games. New said this is a workaround he put in place because of the new law.

“There shouldn’t be any uncertainty where there’s a crisis that occurs where officers stand back and wonder, ‘Oh, can I do this,’ or ‘Should I do this?’ We just want to respond and I think that’s what the public wants as well,” New said.

When asked why the majority of Minnesota schools do not have officers, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Jeff Potts said the decision to have an SRO is up to the district and law enforcement agency.

Potts said some schools pulled their SROs after the police murder of George Floyd, but he’s seen that trend reverse.

“More and more school districts who may have removed them have now reengaged and brought them back,” Potts said.

Floyd was held in the prone position the Legislature outlawed in schools. The weight of Derek Chauvin on Floyd’s back caused what’s known as positional asphyxia, depriving his heart and brain of oxygen while his carbon dioxide levels rose.