Hennepin County attorney’s guidance to chiefs complicates SRO discussion

Hennepin County attorney’s guidance to chiefs complicates SRO discussion

Hennepin County attorney’s guidance to chiefs complicates SRO discussion

Just one week after Minnesota’s attorney general issued a second legal opinion on the types of force school resource officers can use with students, Hennepin County’s top prosecutor has issued her own guidance on the law.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS obtained a letter Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty sent to police chiefs on Wednesday that provides her office’s “interpretation of this new statutory language.”

In his legal opinion last week, Attorney General Keith Ellison said a new law restricting the use of force by school resource officers does not negate their ability to use “reasonable force” — a fact-specific standard in Minnesota — in the course of their lawful duties as peace officers, including using physical contact to intervene in nonviolent situations or placing a student under arrest. By contrast, Moriarty interpreted the law to mean reasonable force is only allowed “to prevent when there is a risk of bodily harm or death.”

Law enforcement groups have criticized the language of the law as it’s written, saying it imposes separate sets of standards for school resource officers and regular patrol officers and conflicts with officers’ training, and several dozen law enforcement agencies around the state suspended their SRO programs as they worked to reconcile the new law.

After Ellison issued his legal opinion last week, Gov. Tim Walz met with law enforcement and legislative leaders in hopes of alleviating those concerns. Some agencies — such as the Blue Earth County Sheriff’s Office, Eagan Police Department and White Bear Lake Police Department — have already reinstated their SRO programs in light of Ellison’s interpretation.

But Moriarty now appears to believe a separate set of standards may have been the point.

“I know from speaking with many of you that you see the key role of your SROs as building relationships with youth in schools to help ensure safety,” Moriarty wrote. “In other words, they have a different role than officers outside schools whose primary role is to enforce the law. This statutory change indicates that the legislature wants SROs aligned with school personnel in terms of the tools used to interact with youth in schools.”

She goes on to suggest a “shift in training and policy” may be necessary for SROs.

“If there is something that happens in the school, we all have to be like crystal clear on what can, and what can’t an SRO do to stop certain kinds of conduct,” said Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association (MCPA).

The MCPA represents about 500 current and retired law enforcement leaders and serves as the voice of police executives in Minnesota.

“I thought we were headed that way with the attorney general’s opinion,” Potts said. “We were very hopeful and optimistic. But, you know, with this information from the county attorney in Hennepin County yesterday, I think it set us all back a long ways.”

Potts also feels this feeling may stretch further than Hennepin County.

“There may be, maybe, a ripple effect beyond Hennepin County that, you know, comes out of the email that was sent out by [the county attorney] that other county attorneys may agree with that,” Potts said. “We don’t know. It just it just adds even more confusion and a lack of clarity to the issue.”

Moriarty emphasized that only the attorney general has the authority to issue a binding legal opinion — but even that could be dissected by a judge in court.

“Given our office’s jurisdiction to review cases and make charging decisions in Hennepin County, we do think it important to provide insight on our interpretation of this new statutory language,” Moriarty wrote. 

A spokesperson for Moriarty’s office issued the following statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS on Thursday:

“The county attorney talks frequently with Hennepin County chiefs and has developed a trusting, open, and transparent relationship with them. They know they can ask her questions directly and seek her guidance, and that the county attorney will be direct and honest in response, even as they recognize we cannot provide their departments with legal advice. We are not going to comment further on the county attorney’s conversations and engagement with police chiefs in this context.”

This is a developing story. Stay with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS for the latest updates.