Deadly Brooklyn Center traffic stop renews focus on policing laws

Four young people look at the camera for a portrait.
A group of Daunte Wright's friends poses for a portrait a few blocks from where Brooklyn Center police shot Daunte Wright, 20, during a traffic stop Sunday. Wright died a short time later.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Updated: 3:10 p.m.

Another police encounter that left a Black man dead has some lawmakers calling for more action on changes to police powers, with several proposals in limbo during the Minnesota Legislature’s session. 

Twenty-year-old Daunte Wright died soon after being shot by a Brooklyn Center police officer during a traffic stop Sunday. The state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is investigating the incident.

Bills before the Legislature would hasten release of body camera and squad car footage, impose more training requirements and do more to track misconduct by officers.

Gov. Tim Walz implored lawmakers to give accountability proposals full consideration in the waning weeks of the session.

“We can stop pretending this is just the natural order of the universe and things happen this way,” the governor said. “I’m going to demand that the Legislature finally hold some hearings on some of these reforms that have passed in other states and proven to make a difference.”

Walz didn’t discuss in detail which proposals he wants to push through, but he said there’s a culture change needed around what leads to stops, when weapons are pulled and how officers are trained.

Plans are moving in the DFL-led House but not the GOP-led Senate.

Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, sponsored some of the measures and said the time for talk is over.

“Don’t even pray for me or my community. If those prayers don’t come with some action if you have the power to create the change we want to see in our community when it comes to policing,” Thompson said Monday. “Save your prayers for later; I’d rather see your actions. Prayers mean nothing. Words mean nothing. Show me. Show me.”

His remarks were targeted in part at Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of East Gull Lake. He posted on Twitter on Monday that more needs to be known about what led to Wright’s death. 

“The loss of life is always heart wrenching and I’m praying for all those impacted by the loss yesterday. We need to gather all the facts before a judgment can be made after yesterday’s tragic events,” Gazelka wrote. “May God show us all how to heal in a way that reconciles our communities.”

Thompson and other DFL lawmakers say negotiations on the state budget should wait until after police changes are enacted.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said her caucus would be working to determine its next steps. She pointed to legislation approved last summer that raised the standard for use of deadly force; it took hold in March.

“House DFLers are committed to providing public safety for all Minnesotans, and we will continue our work toward reform and accountability,” Hortman said in a written statement.

Senate Public Safety Committee Chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the prior changes around police training and accountability are still being put into effect.

“Not knowing the exact circumstances of the incident, I am supportive of a full investigation by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to determine what, if anything, could have prevented this accident from happening, or if there is cause for a case against the officers," Limmer said in a written statement.

There are several proposals that are part of a House public safety budget bill that will move toward a vote in the coming weeks. But so far the Senate hasn’t come forward with a set of its own.

One particular focus is on access to police body camera footage, which the Brooklyn Center police department released a day after Wright’s shooting.

Minnesota law limits the circumstances in which footage is released prior to the end of an investigation. The House bill would bar alteration of footage and require indefinite retention in cases where deadly force is used. It would also give families a chance to view the unedited videos within two days of a deadly incident.

Johnathan McClellan of the Minnesota Justice Coalition said the transparency legislation is vital.

“Police departments or law enforcement has to make available that video to the family or their legal representative within 48 hours,” he said. “This isn’t a full-on release to the public or a viewing by the public.”

Groups representing police departments, sheriffs agencies and their officers oppose the measure. They say it could compromise investigations.

Law enforcement can release camera footage sooner if it’s instrumental to quelling tensions or correcting misinformation.

Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon said he released the footage in Wright’s shooting, in which Gannon said the officer used her firearm when she meant to discharge a stun gun, in hopes that community members would see it as a sign he’s committed to transparency.

“There’s nothing I can say to lessen the pain of Mr. Wright’s family, friends, loved ones for that feeling of loss they must have,” said Gannon, a police chief of 27 years.

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