The Minnesota state board that sets police licensing standards unanimously voted Thursday to adopt revised rules that will prohibit law enforcement officers from associating with extremist and hate organizations or espousing their views.
Violations by an officer could result in sanctions by the board, up to and including revocation of their license.
The rules, which also include sanctions for the use of excessive force, could take effect as early as April once they are cleared by the state's chief administrative law judge and the governor's office.
"I was surprised at so much attention it received," said Mendota Heights Police Chief Kelly McCarthy, chair of the Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board, referring to the language on extremist groups. "Most people agreed it was a no-brainer."
The board, appointed by Gov. Tim Walz, is comprised of law enforcement representatives and members of the public. The Legislature recently changed its composition to add more of the latter.
McCarthy acknowledged that law enforcement groups expressed opposition in hearings last year to the proposed rules applying to extremist and hate groups.
The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and Law Enforcement Labor Services wrote to the board in December, stating that it had not shown "why legal activity that is not directly related to a matter of statutory delegation to the Board can be regulated."
The law enforcement groups said their comments shouldn't be construed "as condoning bias, discrimination, hate, or violence."
But in an opinion on the rules last month, Administrative Law Judges Eric Lipman and Suzanne Todnem said court rulings have established that "the speech and associational rights of law enforcement personnel are not absolute."
They cited a 1995 opinion of the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals stating that police departments function as paramilitary organizations and therefore "members may be subject to stringent rules and regulations that could not apply to other government agencies."
The judges said courts have upheld restrictions on the conduct of off-duty officers with regard to fundamental freedoms, "when officer's exercise of these rights interfere with the police department's orderly functioning or its relationship within the community."
Carlos Mariani, a former DFL legislator from St. Paul and past chair of the House public safety committee, was at the POST Board meeting Thursday and applauded its decision.
"It's about time to recognize how racism corrupts everything in our society, including our public safety systems," he said.
Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality and a member of the POST Board advisory committee that helped develop the rules, had urged the board to adopt its position on extremist groups.
"Police are given a lot of power in our society," Gross said. "They must not use that power to discriminate."
She said law enforcement officers shouldn't be involved with hate groups that promote discrimination.
A spokeswoman for Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said Peters did not attend the board meeting and was not in position to comment Thursday. A representative of Law Enforcement Labor Services did not immediately return a call requesting comment.