Derek Chauvin had worked for almost two decades at the Minneapolis Police Department, amassing a history riddled with accusations of abuse, before he murdered George Floyd on May 25, 2020.
As demonstrators flooded the streets of Minneapolis after Floyd’s killing, they said they were driven by outrage but not surprise — Minneapolis’s Black community has almost never had a trusting relationship with its police force, in a dynamic that’s common across the country.
So, with the protest movement setting records last spring, the Minneapolis City Council got behind a motion to unwind the police force entirely and replace it with a new entity. Demonstrators’ calls to “end policing as we know it” represented “a mantra to meet the city’s pain,” as the Times reporter Astead W. Herndon put it at the time, and it seemed that — at least on the city level — lawmakers were about to go beyond small reforms.
But that effort quickly stalled out. Within weeks, some city legislators walked back their commitment to abolishing the department, saying they supported rethinking policing but not replacing the police force outright. Since then, local efforts at police reform have foundered, partly because of pushback from the city’s powerful police officers’ union.
Some City Council members who have consistently advocated a wholesale reworking of policing in Minneapolis didn’t show up on Tuesday when Mayor Jacob Frey, who has walked a more moderate line, gave a speech after the Chauvin verdict.
Philippe Cunningham, a Council member who is getting a master’s degree in criminal justice online at John Jay College, was among those who didn’t show up.
“I believe that we are in a moment in which we are being called to act with urgency,” he said. “It is possible for us to continue doing the work of reimagining and transforming public safety in this city by building new systems.”
Now, less than 24 hours later, a new avenue has opened up for potentially major changes to policing in the city. Merrick Garland, the U.S. attorney general, announced on Wednesday that the Justice Department had opened a “pattern and practice” investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department. That comes on top of a similar investigation being undertaken by the state attorney general, Keith Ellison.
These kinds of pattern-and-practice investigations often lead to court-approved agreements between federal prosecutors and local governments, meant to guide a city’s police force through a process of thorough reform. This would most likely be done through a settlement agreement, known as a consent decree, guaranteeing action to end unlawful practices within the department.
Under President Donald Trump, the Justice Department had stopped using consent decrees to force reforms at police departments, but last week, Garland restored them.
April 21, 2021, 6:08 p.m. ET
Dennis Kenney, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College and a former police officer, said that as the Justice Department undertakes a review of Minneapolis’s policing, it would most likely be looking to take reform in two directions: restricting the allowable use of force, and increasing accountability for police officers accused of wrongdoing.
While the Obama administration stepped up the use of consent decrees against city police departments, Kenney described the investigation into Minneapolis’s department — and, potentially, others in the future — as an opportunity to reimagine policing on a new level.
“They need to establish with the community what the rules of police-citizen engagement are going to be, when can the police interact, what’s the expectations on them and on the city,” he said. “That needs to be collaboratively decided, and very few places have done that.”
Efforts to hold police officers accountable for instances of brutality and abuse often run into a justice system that has been built to protect officers from prosecution. In recent decades, even as civil rights gains have been won, law enforcement agencies — which long operated to uphold Jim Crow laws and other forms of segregation — have put up barriers to greater accountability.
In the wake of the civil rights movement, just as it became more likely that juries might side with a Black or brown plaintiff alleging police brutality, police unions enshrined protections for officers that make it harder to bring charges in the first place.
Minneapolis is a prime example of this, Kenney said. “Minneapolis has a very strident union, they have a reputation for that,” he said. “So a good deal of the reform that will take place needs to happen there.”
Minnesota is one of many states whose legal code includes a so-called police officer’s Bill of Rights — effectively a law setting up roadblocks to the investigation and prosecution of police misconduct. Maryland was the first state to put a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights into law in the 1970s; this month, it also became the first state to repeal one.
In Minneapolis, oversight of the Police Department is consolidated under the mayor’s office, making it virtually impossible for the City Council to enforce structural changes. Cunningham, the Council member, said that he welcomed the Justice Department investigation, but added that he was concerned that any reforms it proposed might be tantamount to “slapping a coat of paint onto a house that has a crumbling foundation.”
He pointed to a proposal that he and two other Council members had put forward, which would amend the city charter to replace the Police Department with an office of public safety. “Right now we have all of our public safety functions scattered throughout the city government,” he said. “They are not organized in any sort of meaningful way, and the Police Department operates almost entirely separately from the City of Minneapolis as an agency.”
His proposal would “remove the Police Department as a stand-alone department” and place it under the oversight of a public safety commissioner.
The Chauvin prosecution, which resulted in his conviction on all three counts, was a rarity in that it drew upon damning and unwavering testimony from Chauvin’s fellow officers. Medaria Arradondo, the chief of the Minneapolis police, testified that Chauvin had “absolutely” violated department policy and ethics when he pinned Floyd to the pavement with his knee for more than nine minutes.
It’s extremely rare to see a law enforcement officer — let alone a chief — testify in such straightforward and withering terms about another officer’s misconduct. Even when it does happen, the doctrine of qualified immunity, enshrined on the federal level by the Supreme Court, has made it mostly impossible for victims and their families to seek civil damages from officers in instances of excessive force.
Democrats in Congress have put forward multiple bills to reform or reverse the precedent, but so far they face staunch Republican opposition — animated in part by the close relationship between Trump’s allies and law enforcement unions.
After the Chauvin verdict, President Biden called on Congress to pass major legislation establishing stricter standards for officer conduct and increasing accountability. Any such bill would probably require at least 10 Republican votes of support.
“George Floyd was murdered almost a year ago. There’s meaningful police reform legislation in his name,” Biden said, referring to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has now passed the House in two consecutive years. “It shouldn’t take a whole year to get this done.”