Feds to probe Minneapolis police practices in wake of Chauvin's conviction

Two people hug in the middle of a street.
Michael Wilson (right) hugs Pamela Weems at George Floyd Square as people arrive to celebrate the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 6:42 p.m.

The Justice Department is opening a broad investigation into the Minneapolis police that will dig into policies, training, supervision and the use of force to see if there’s a pattern of unlawful policing, including during protests.

If the investigation turns up such practices, the federal government will press for changes through a consent agreement or a civil rights lawsuit, Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday.

Investigators will also determine if the department engages in discriminatory practices, he said, adding that his agency will reach out to community groups and the public to learn about their experiences with Minneapolis police.

Acting U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Anders Folk discusses DOJ's probe into MPD

“I know that justice is sometimes slow, sometimes elusive, and sometimes never comes,” Garland said. “The Department of Justice will be unwavering in its pursuit of equal justice under law."

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The investigation announcement follows Tuesday’s murder and manslaughter conviction of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd. The Minneapolis City Council, Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo all applauded news of the federal “pattern or practice” review.

“The intent of this inquiry is to reveal any deficiencies or unwanted conduct within the department and provide adequate resources and direction to correct them,” Arradondo’s office said, adding that the chief and department will cooperate fully.

Asked whether the Justice Department investigation into the city’s Police Department affects push for charter change in Minneapolis, council member Steve Fletcher said he doesn't think so but "I welcome the push from outside to mandate reforms the Mayor and the Chief have been slow to pursue."

The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis declined to comment.

Chauvin was one of several officers called to a south Minneapolis street corner last May on a report of a man allegedly using a counterfeit $20 to buy cigarettes at a local store. He arrived to find other officers struggling to arrest Floyd and get him in a squad car as Floyd pleaded that he was claustrophobic.

The encounter turned fatal as officers pulled Floyd to the ground to subdue him during the arrest.

Bystander video captured Chauvin with his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as the man lay pinned to the street, handcuffed and face down, pleading that he couldn’t breathe while people shouted from the curb that Floyd was dying.

Shared widely across social media, the images of Chauvin, a white police officer, pressing his knee against a prone, handcuffed Black man pleading for air, set off nationwide protests against police brutality.

The Justice Department is already investigating whether the officers involved in Floyd's death violated his civil rights. The new probe could result in major changes in policing in the city of Minneapolis.

Former Mpls. Mayor R.T. Rybak on the DOJ police probe

On Friday, families who've lost loved ones to police killings worked with activists called on the federal government to launch such an investigation, but on a statewide level.

Several groups working with the families signed a March 29 letter to Garland asking for a patterns and practice investigation of police misconduct in Minnesota.

"Our system is broken, people are being hurt, and are dying," the letter reads. "We need your help to bring the change and adherence to the constitution by our government."

‘Changing the culture of the police department’

“Pattern or practice” investigations can take six to nine months if they’re done quickly, said Jonathan Smith, a former Justice Department official who helped lead more than two dozen inquiries into police departments around the country during the Obama administration. 

Negotiating a consent decree can add a couple more months, and it’s only after that step that real work of changing the department starts, which can take years or even decades, added Smith, who now leads the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

“[It] provided a record that demonstrated that while the issues in each of those communities was unique, that there were problems that were universal in policing in the country, and played a real role in the conversations around how we should change policing, transform policing,” Smith said of the investigations.

While the work ebbed during the Trump administration, Smith expects renewed efforts under President Joe Biden.

“The kind of change that we’re asking police departments to make [can] take a long time to implement,” Smith said. “They require changing policy, changing training, changing accountability systems with the goal of changing the culture of the police department.”  

Following Floyd’s killing, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights launched an investigation into the past decade of Minneapolis Police Department policies and practices looking for discrimination against people of color.

It led to Minneapolis agreeing to several changes, including an immediate ban on choke holds and requiring the police chief to approve use of crowd control weapons during protests. Police must also be “timely and transparent” on discipline decisions for officers.

That inquiry continues, Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero said, adding that the Justice Department effort complements the state probe.

Trial basics

Two men listen to a judge during a trial
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and defense attorney Eric Nelson listen as Judge Peter Cahill speaks during Chauvin's trial on Monday.
Screenshot of Court TV video

Who’s who: A look at the key players in the Derek Chauvin trial.

What we know about the jurors: The 12 jurors who reviewed the case include a chemist, a youth volunteer, a cardiac nurse and an IT professional.

Chauvin's lawyer outnumbered, but had help: A handful of attorneys appeared for the prosecution, compared to a single attorney to defend Derek Chauvin.

Legion of Chauvin prosecutors, each with own role: Viewers may have been struck by the array of prosecutors who took turns presenting their case. The choice of who does what was no accident.

George Floyd and his legacy

A woman speaks into a microphone in front of a black and white painting.
Jeanette Rupert smiles as she speaks to the crowd at George Floyd square in front of "Icon of a Revolution," a painting of Floyd by Peyton Scott Russell, in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Remembering George Floyd, the man: Before he became a symbol in the fight for racial justice, friends say George Floyd was a “gentle giant” who sought a fresh start.

Making George Floyd Square: Here’s how the site of George Floyd’s killing — 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis — is being reshaped.

Rescuing the plywood — and memorializing a movement: Two Black women are leading the effort to preserve the murals painted on storefront boards in the Twin Cities.

Calls for change: Here’s what some activists tell MPR News about their experiences with race in Minnesota, why they march and what they hope for the future.

Read more

Two people dance in the street.
Marcia Howard (left) dances as people gather to celebrate the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Historic verdict just one step toward ‘true justice,’ Minn. leaders say: Many of Minnesota’s leading Democrats said they'll commit to systematic change that addresses long-running racial disparities. Accountability in George Floyd’s killing, they said, is just the start.

Crowds cheer, celebrate after Chauvin convicted of murder and manslaughter: In downtown Minneapolis and at George Floyd Square, people hugged and wept as they heard the verdicts, drivers blared their horns and demonstrators waved signs.

Tears and relief sweep intersection where George Floyd died: After the verdicts were read, thunderous cheering filled the place where George Floyd was pinned beneath a police officer's knee nearly a year ago, begging for air and his mother. Many people wept. Some sobbed. (The Associated Press)

Crowds across U.S. react with joy, wariness to verdict in Floyd's death: Black Americans cheered, marched, hugged, waved signs and sang jubilantly in the streets. But they also tempered those celebrations with the heavy knowledge that Derek Chauvin's conviction was just a first, tiny step on the long road to address centuries of racist policing in a nation founded on slavery. (The Associated Press)

'We're all so relieved,' Biden tells Floyd family after verdict: The president said he hoped the verdict would give momentum to congressional police reform efforts. (The Associated Press)

Where the Chauvin verdict fits in the recent history of high-profile police killings: The guilty verdicts were far from guaranteed, as convictions of police officers are historically rare. (NPR)

NPR’s live blog: The latest news and updates.