Yesterday, we had the opportunity to interview Rep Carlos Mariani (DFL-65B, St Paul) Chair, Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division on proposed changes to the criminal justice system affecting police accountability, negotiations with the Senate and what to expect coming forward in a next Special Session. This is the first of a two-part transcribed Q&A.
At the time he was just getting ready to have an important conversation with Governor Tim Walz (DFL-MN) and today he i having a conversation with Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-09, Nisswa) facilitated by MN Business Partnership and former House or Representatives member Charlie Weaver (R).
Mariani provides great insight into the current state of affairs, discusses the obstructions and the inaction of key players on this issue, especially his Senate counterpart, Sen Warren Limmer (R-34, Maple Grove). We received a solid behind the curtain perspective on where things currently stand.
As we reflect on what was said, it is clear the House position is not overreaching but rather is a reasoned approach to create a system that reflects a respect for the lives of all Minnesotans and may prevent the senseless killing of people of color at the hands of law enforcement.
It is a worthy read.
C&B: I’m speaking with the chair of the Public Safety, Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division in the Minnesota House Representatives, Representative Carlos Mariani. As the chair of the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division Chair; in the aftermath of the George Floyd’s murder, what do you see ahead of you at this historical moment?
CM: Well I see a good opportunity for us to address what pretty clearly a lot of Minnesotans want us to address. You know, we had two plus weeks of protests, massive protests primarily here in the Twin Cities but not just in the Twin Cities, in the regional cities around the state, and folks were outraged of the killing of George. And they were outraged, and they were diverse in their backgrounds and their makeup. You have white, black, brown, indigenous men, women, suburban moms even all engaged, you know, in exercising the First Amendment right to express their outrage but also to call for a different way for us to do public safety. And so, I see an opportunity here in terms of grabbing that energy and reflecting it to the form of legislation that can put us on a better path of A) Holding our police accountable, very strongly so that we can avoid these kind of, you know, obscenities like the killing of George, the killing of Philando, and then also to put forth ideas about how we can expand public safety so that involves more than just using armed police in order to solve every problem that our community has many of which sometimes, you know leads to criminal acts.
C&B: What are the fundamental issues you’re addressing?
CM: One fundamental issue is accountability, the lack thereof. As we, you know, we’ve been working on this issue, by we, I mean our committee, for almost two years now, ever since I began chairmanship on it, in 2019.
And so, and even this year, we held, before the session started to hearing on race and the law. So, we’ve, we’ve understood from the very beginning of this bad intersect right now with policing and race and have been proposing all sorts of ideas, in order to create a more accountable, transparent, civilian, you know, heavy involvement in holding police, and law enforcement accountable.
And so, so one of the big issues for us to address is the relatively weak way in which accountability shows up right now, when it comes to policing. It actually sounds kind of hum drum, you know, but accountability is a powerful thing. You know, we have all sorts of professions in this state that are licensed through the state of Minnesota, just like all police officers are licensed through the state but in every other profession, you have really strong transparent and even proactive ways to constantly review the behaviors, the actions of any of these professionals. Whether they’re nurses or teachers or dentists or psychologists, the state can do that in a very muscular way in order to protect the public, but we don’t do that, when it comes to protecting the public from wrongdoing on the part of law enforcement professionals.
So, what are the big issues for us is how do we get that profession, at that same level of scrutiny and quality and accountability of the other professionals in the state? The other opportunity here is for greater civilian, participation, direction, guidance, direction in terms of the conduct of our law enforcement officers shaping how we can continue to evolve that professional still has a powerful, and positive interaction with the entire community, not just parts of it, but the entire community. So that’s where we’re looking for ways to invest, not divest, there’s divestment, there’s no defunding of police here, but what we’re looking for here is to expand state investments in other activities that can work, powerfully well, either with police and or independent of police in order to head off crime, in order to promote community.
So those are two big areas, you know, a third area is, what do we do to those instances where we do have a terrible wrong that’s been committed like we saw on May 25th, and so how do we make sure that there’s sound prosecution. You know, Hennepin County had never, you know, successfully prosecuted a police officer, until just a few years ago and that police officer turns out to be a Somali American but with, you know, dozens of dozens of complaints and many deaths had never done that before, and so there’s a lack of confidence on the part of the public, in regards to the will to prosecute wrongdoers who are police.
And so, we’re moving that primary responsibility we’re proposing that to be moved to the attorney general’s office so a state office that would be one step removed from the conflicts of prosecuting police officers of departments that they work closely with, which is the case with county attorneys.
So those are three big areas are many more. But I think we can certainly look at this and focus on, you know, negative punitive approaches. We’re approaching this differently; we’re approaching this in terms of how do we use this tragedy, to make our public safety system stronger and better, and accountability and community involvement and participation in public safety is very much at the center of all that for us.
C&B: What does Black Lives Matter mean to you?
CM: Black Lives Matter means to me, the recognition that historically, black lives have in fact, not mattered. And in our society, we use the word all, to attempt to describe everyone except that it really doesn’t describe everyone. It really encompasses those folks who are the norm, who are the majority, who the majority is comfortable with, so, by definition that tends to be folks who identify or identified as white people. And on the flip side of that, is a whole community of folks, including black people that are just simply not thought out as being part of the norm.
And so black lives matter, really affirms that each person each community is important in our society that their lives should be lifted up to the high level, to the sanctity of life, of dignity and respect, that other communities, take for granted. And so, you know, you have to do a little bit of a dive into history right, in the United States we created a slaveholders Republic that made it okay, from the very beginning to own other people so that we identify as black people, and then from that floor has a long history of indignities and dehumanizing of those people. That was reinforced, not only through social practice but by legal practices even attempts to mask in pseudo-science, in religion etcetera.
So, it’s critically important, given our history of de facto, not having the lives of black people matter, to very straightforwardly, very assertively, affirm, that black lives do matter.
C&B: So, our constitution of our state was created right after the Civil War and Reconstruction was happening and there are parts of our constitution that are affected by that, such as tying voting rights to legal convictions. Do you think that that needs to be changed in our Constitution?
CM: Well, I’m not a constitutional scholar, but my understanding is that our legislature can act within that construct to affirm voter rights for, for all sorts of classes of people including those that have been incarcerated and that are carrying felony convictions. And so, I think we’re in pretty strong legal standing that we don’t need to change the constitution to do that, we could do that statutorily.
And so, one of our proposals is in fact to do that. Now the tie of that true police accountability to an expanded notion of public safety, that needs communities where communities are at and involves them and public safety is really pretty simple, right, because we disenfranchise folks with felonies, from voting for long periods of time, after they’ve been released certainly while they’re incarcerated, or while they’re on probation. That means that the very people who have a direct experience with our policing of law enforcement entities and processes, end up having no say, on who is enforcing those laws on who is policing them.
And the point is that once you paid your debt to society, part of redeeming yourself and redeeming ourselves as a society, is to bring those folks back into community with us. And we can’t do that, if we’re saying you’re part of that community but, you can’t decide who your police chief is going to be, you can’t decide, you know who’s going to be policing your streets. And so, you know, this was a real common practice during the whole Jim Crow Era where you know localities came up with all sorts of reasons to criminalize activity in black communities. And then, by doing that disenfranchising them from voting, which then meant they couldn’t elect the city council people and the mayor’s who appointed and hired the police department. That was enforcing these laws and criminalizing, you know, black communities and targeting that specifically.
So, we really want to break the cycle, of excessive police presence and activities with certain communities but those communities, absolutely, need to be part of our electoral process, especially after they’ve already served their time, have already made their obligations you know regarding probation, so that they can help us build a good community, and part of building a good community, is being able to vote in the kind of folks that can determine what that local public safety system should look like.
C&B: Are you saying Jim Crow laws exist in Minnesota?
CM: In a way, yeah, ironically, in a way, by this artificial disenfranchisement of people who have paid their dues and have done their time, that, its impact is very similar to what Jim Crow was designed to do.
C&B: What’s the significance of the POCI Caucus, the people of color caucus in the DFL House Caucus.
CM: Yeah, the people color and indigenous caucus of legislators there is nineteen of us, fourteen in the House. five in the Senate. And that’s the new level, or new percentage, a new presence of that kind of diversity in our legislature, ever. Its impact has been that, with those kind of numbers, and those numbers are going to grow by the way, with those kind of numbers were able to engage in the kind of conversations that we’ve been avoiding for all too long. So, I guess I will get a (inaudible) out of that, as you know because of my seniority I am chairing a major committee, Public Safety Criminal Justice Reform, which then allows me to bring in my experiences as lucky as you know, as a brown person into the stewardship of that committee. Which has informed and allowed me to engage and structure that committee in such a way where we’re addressing issues of race and the law. So, as I said earlier, we began this last regular session. Just before session by holding an evening long discussion of race, and the law over at Hamline University. And so that’s really driven by my own experiences by my own, you know, the things that motivate and move me as well as what motivates and moves my district which is a quote unquote majority minority district, where we have lots of diversity, with lots of different communities of color as well as white communities who are experiencing in justices in the criminal justice and policing systems.
So, with more POCI Caucus members, you’re going to have more of these conversations, more of these explorations or these experiences being brought into shaping our laws, and it’s going to make it harder and harder for this legislature to ignore those realities that exist, specifically within those communities of color.
And so, the POCI Caucus was highly instrumental in putting together the package of proposals, or the package of nineteen proposals that constituted the Minnesota House’s response to the killing of George Floyd.
C&B: That leads right into the question I’m going to ask, after George Floyd, how does the legislation you’re advancing today differ from your bill the first year of this biennium?
CM: I think its informed by it. You know there’s a lot of fine tuning, of it. I think there’s a sense of urgency that wasn’t as widespread, as before, you know, with many more members, you know, willing beyond just POCI members, are very willing to immediately address these issues and quite frankly even, you know, I’m a Democrat, but quite frankly, even a few Republicans in the House, there were, I don’t know, four or five republicans that at one point or another voted for different provisions of the big act that we put together. And so, I keep the difference. George Floyd, really just lit a strong passion in people’s hearts, and provided you know energy by virtue of the outrage and will be with us with our own eyes you know the slow torturous killing of another human being. And it just really provided an incredible, you know wind in our sails to really move forward, really pretty rapidly pretty complex rather complex pretty comprehensive package of ideas. Whereas, any other, you know, issue or time, you know something that’s meaningful would probably take many, many years, you know, to be able to pull together.
C&B: If your legislation had passed last year. What effect would it have had had on law enforcement would Derek Chauvin been a police officer under your new system.
CM: That’s a great question. At the core of our bill last year, which is one of the features of this year’s bill, was a very robust vetting system that collected in centralized public data, we’re talking about data that’s already been pulled it all together, precisely at the state licensing place, the POST Board the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board set up in process by which that data will be analyzed, that the analyzing would have been done with not only, law enforcement, right now it’s super heavily law enforcement that does any look, if they do any look at all. It would have been done with a strong cadre of civilians, next, regular citizens, sitting right next to law enforcement, analyzing data. We arguably could have picked up the intent is to pick up the kind of patterns of practice that officers Chauvin apparently had. You know, we’re talking about an individual that had dozens of complaints, some of a severe nature, some that actually involved the deaths, the use of deadly force, with other individuals prior to George. And so, that would have certainly under our proposal would send up a red flag for us to then take that was strong intention step, either of doing a massive intervention with that individual, or you know, with some pretty severe discipline even leading to dismissal. And of course, if he had been dismissed, delicensed, he would not have been, where he was on May 25 and his knee on another human being’s neck.
So yeah, the whole intention of that kind of use of transparency, data analysis, who’s sitting at the table is all about creating a proactive way to identify problems before they become big problems in terms of the behaviors of our professionals, it’s the way every other profession works, to scrutinize and review for all the right reasons, because it’s all about public safety and protecting the public. It doesn’t happen anywhere with the strength that it shouldn’t be happening when it comes to policing and so that’s the system that were proposed last year, it was turned down out of hat, by the Senate, who quite frankly, never held hearings, and the proposal in their body just wouldn’t even talk about the issue. So, you know, Minnesotans deserve a heck of a lot better than that kind of behavior that we saw last year from the Senate.
C&B: Again, you’re leading into my question line. What has the response been from your senate counterpart, Senator Warren, Chair of the Judiciary Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee?
CM: The response to the part of the Senate Majority, particularly my counterpart Senator Limmer has been, to put it kindly, totally inadequate. We’ve had bills that have been authored in the broader criminal justice arena that have been authored by Republicans by Republican senators that that committee simply would not give a hearing to.
You know, it’s one thing to vote something down to have an objection to why. Another reason why you might fall into our technical issue, or a funding issue, or you know needs a little bit more time to gel or whatever. But to simply not talk, not explore, not hear or engage the public in a public hearing on something this critically important as police accountability It’s just unconscionable. And so, it’s fitting incredibly neglectful. I would say irresponsible. And obviously I don’t have a crystal ball so I don’t know whether we have done that in the Senate or the House that we would have avoided, you know what happened with George, but the legislation again was designed specifically for that and so you know that lack of care, that lack of engagement, that lack of, you know, hard work on the part of the Senate is unbecoming and worse than that it’s just irresponsible.
C&B: Is Senator Limmer ignoring the issue?
CM: I believe he is; I believe your action; your action speaks for itself or in this case your inaction speaks for itself.
C&B: Will you provide your viewpoint on what negotiations, that inside information with the Senator (Limmer) actually are like?
CM: With this individual Senator or with the Senate in general?
C&B: Let’s talk both pieces with him and with the Senate.
CM: Well, our interaction, well they are actually both, synonymous at this point, I can tell you that in our attempt to arrive at agreement in the special session after we’ve worked incredibly hard in the House.
I mean, my gosh, we had a, you know, a seven hour Saturday hearing engaging with, oh my gosh, three dozen different public individuals, including families of loved ones, been killed by the police, Philando Castile’s mother versus George’s family anticipated, as well as academicians, advocates, and even folks in law enforcement, where we heard from police chiefs, who wanted to see a big change in the arbitration system. We had seven hours of that we had five hours mark-up, a couple days later, we had two or three other presentations in two or three other committees. We had a presentation in the Ways and Means Committee. And then we had a seven-hour debate on the floor of the House It took us to a one o’clock in the morning on that Saturday morning of the week before Republicans walked out on the session.
On the Senate side, we had a pretty minimal amount of time spent. I would say, I’m not sure about the hours. It was only several hours in a one-shot hearing, where folks were rushed along in terms of offering their testimony, and then putting forward a few bills, quite frankly, so we thought, you know, could match-up fairly well with our bills. And then when we sat to talk through and negotiate the Senate said, well, you know we can’t act, because we haven’t read your bill.
And mind you, you know, a good chunk of this bill had been written the year before, had been presented to them the year before we had, we actually held a hearing forced them to sit through a hearing in the conference committee on the provisions around police accountability. But nonetheless, they told us, the Senate told the House we haven’t read your bill.
And so, our response was, we think you should read the bill. Why don’t you read the bill we’ll get back together then you could ask those questions and let’s see if we can get to an agreement. You know, five hours later, they wanted to talk again. And at that point they put a number of ideas on the table as a take it or leave it offer and we needed to move quickly because they simultaneously arrange for a press conference to talk about their offer.
We counteroffered within a couple of hours. They looked at it and said, well too bad we’ve run out of time, which was a unilateral decision on their part. We were prepared to stay there as long as it took because this is important. And they got up and walked out and to this day has that responded to the counteroffer that we put on the table which was a combination of a number of their provisions, along with some pretty big ideas that we had in our bill as well, so that all that I was saying that you know our interaction and negotiating style, or process with the Senate, quite frankly, has been in one of a lack of respect on the part of the Senate with the House’s proposals. A lack of urgency, a lack of depth on their part in terms of responding to these issues and a pretty dismissive, you know, attitude by virtue of just simply choosing to walk away. And, by the way, they walked away on Juneteenth, which, you know, spoke volumes to a lot of folks in the African American community. This is, you know, a major liberation for African Americans and it was on that day that the Senate, you know, didn’t respond and then walked away from any further negotiations.
End of Part One