How real change happens: an interview with Sen. Tina Smith

Submitted photo Sen.Tina Smith Business Tour June 5, 2020

U.S. Senator Tina Smith has served as the junior senator from Minnesota since 2018. A member of the DFL, she served as the 48th lieutenant governor of Minnesota from 2015 to 2018, when she was appointed by Governor Mark Dayton to fill the Senate seat vacated by Al Franken. She won the 2018 special election to fill the remainder of Franken’s term and is running for a second term this November. Senator Smith spoke with the MSR on June 5 when she was in Minneapolis touring the damage inflicted on the South Side.

MSR: What would you do if you could make changes?

Senator Smith: If we really intend to honor George Floyd, we have to be willing to change the system that allowed this murder to happen. To me it’s a fundamental value. People should feel safe in their homes and in their communities and in their country. That is a fundamental right, and it’s not the case for Black and Brown people in this country.

So the question is, what do we do? And the truth is, we have lots of ideas when it comes to reforming police and the criminal justice system. We are not working from a blank slate. Obama introduced a plan for 21st century policing, and Keith Ellison has introduced some ideas.

We have got to keep this abuse of justice from happening again.

 MSR: We agree, so what are your ideas for change?

Senator Smith: If we want the criminal justice system and policing to work, I think we need  different national standards and a new national standard for use of force. Right now all officers have to do is say they think the use of force was reasonable. I don’t think that is nearly high enough of a standard. At the least it should be necessary.

Police officers right now have a series of protections that essentially put them above the law. Criminal liability and civil liability would be useful tools. I think we need to look at and challenge the qualified immunity doctrine which is in case law, but it stops cops from being held accountable for their behavior.

And, I think we should create a national registry of police misconduct, so officers that have disciplinary issues in one department can’t just move to another department and start all over again.

We need accountability measures that I believe would change the culture in police departments. We should tie federal funding to states and local governments adopting those practices.

Obviously we should be banning chokeholds and banning racial profiling. We saw this terrible murder of George Floyd, and the restraint used to kill George was not allowed, but they did it anyway. And I feel it is because they feel they will never be held accountable.

I believe that the Minneapolis Police Federation led by Lt. Kroll, who has not only had disciplinary issues himself but has been reported to have association with White Supremacists, we have to be able to change that. We have to figure out a way to reform the federation contract that through binding arbitration makes it very, very difficult to hold police accountable.

MSR: Is it possible to toss those rules out?

Senator Smith: We entrust police officers with the power to use deadly force, and in exchange for that we need accountability so they don’t use that deadly force in out-of-control ways. And we do have the power to change that.

There are many, many layers of case law that have been built up, that have provided police officers with immunity from accountability, and we can wipe that clean by establishing a new national standard. And essentially start over.

We have to be real with ourselves. We have not addressed the underlying racism and bias in the system of policing, and that system provokes violence and unnecessary use of force. And we have to change that.

Yes, we have to have more accountability for the individual incidents, but we also have to work on the underlying systemic problems. We need to look at training. We need to look at psychological testing to make sure that individuals who are entrusted with the ability to use force are worthy of that trust.

MSR: Everyone wants change, but how do we make real change?

Senator Smith: In this moment we are talking about a bunch of good ideas, but we have done that in the past and not had the political will to change it.

I am going to be honest: I do not believe that Donald Trump will ever sign into law a bill like the one I have just described. This is why the election matters. This is the kind of policing that people want. This is the kind of community-based policing that people want [as described in the Justice in Policing Act of 2020—see below].

People have to raise their voices because I can say this is the right thing to do, and when I have talked to people in the community they have ideas, but just me saying that on the floor of the United States Senate does not make Donald Trump sign it into law or make Republicans vote it into law.

And that’s where the power of the people has to come in.

People living in a democracy can express their desire for change in a bunch of different ways. They can express their desire for change by taking to the streets and protesting peacefully and demanding change. I think we have seen that starting here in Minneapolis and spreading across the whole country and the whole world.

And that has been powerful. Some people in power are uncomfortable, but that is the point of demonstrations—to demand the change you want to see.

And of course the only thing people have to do is voice their displeasure at the ballot box. Hopefully there will be an opportunity to vote by mail in November, and your vote will be counted. Fundamentally, that’s how things change.

MSR: Joe Biden made a flippant comment indicating that the Black community has no choice but to vote for him in November. How does the Democratic Party overcome the idea that it takes Black voters for granted?

Senator Smith: He shouldn’t have said that. The problem is, it played into the suspicions many Black and Brown people have, and that is that they are taken for granted by the Democratic Party. It is not a good time to be flippant.

The reason that I am doing my best to be specific and clear and focused is because that is what people should expect of me, not just platitude and good words, but that I back my words with actions. I have done everything I can to be that kind of leader.

To view the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, visit www.booker.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Justice_in_Policing_Act.pdf

This interview was conducted by Mel Reeves.

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