Derek Chauvin had worked for nearly two decades at the Minneapolis Police Department, amassing a history riddled with accusations of abuse, before assassinating George Floyd on May 25, 2020.
As protesters flooded the streets of Minneapolis after Floyd’s murder, they said they were motivated by outrage but not surprise – Minneapolis’ black community hardly ever had a trusting relationship with its police forces, in a common dynamic across the country.
So, as the protest movement set records last spring, Minneapolis City Council backed a motion to completely relax the police force and replace it with a new entity. Demonstrators’ calls to “end the police as we know it” were “a mantra for dealing with the pain of the city”, according to Times reporter Astead W. Herndon let’s say it at the time, and it looked like – at least at the city level – lawmakers were about to move beyond small reforms.
But that effort quickly came to a halt. In a few weeks, some municipal lawmakers reneged on their commitment to abolish the department, saying they were in favor of a new reflection on the maintenance of order, but not the outright replacement of the police force. Since then, local police reform efforts have failed, in part due to the refusal of the city’s powerful police union.
Some city council members who have always advocated for a comprehensive police overhaul in Minneapolis did not show up on Tuesday when Mayor Jacob Frey, who followed a more moderate line, gave a speech after the Chauvin verdict.
Philippe Cunningham, a board member who is earning an online master’s degree in criminal justice at John Jay College, was among those who did not show up.
“I believe we are at a time when we are called upon to act urgently,” he said. “We can continue to do the work of reinventing and transforming public safety in this city by building new systems.”
Today, less than 24 hours later, a new avenue has opened up for potentially major changes in policing the city. Merrick Garland, the United States Attorney General, announced Wednesday that the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into “patterns and practices” of the Minneapolis Police Department. This is in addition to a similar investigation by State Attorney General Keith Ellison.
These types of pattern and practice investigations often lead to court-approved agreements between federal prosecutors and local governments intended to guide a city’s police force through a process of in-depth reform. This would most likely be done through a settlement agreement, known as a consent decree, ensuring action to end illegal practices within the ministry.
Under President Donald Trump, the Justice Department had stopped using consent decrees to force police service reforms, but last week Garland reinstated them.
Dennis Kenney, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College and a former police officer, said that when the Justice Department undertakes a review of the Minneapolis Police Department, it would most likely seek reform in two directions: restricting the permitted use of strength. and increase the accountability of police officers accused of wrongdoing.
As the Obama administration stepped up the use of consent orders against city police departments, Kenney described the investigation of the Minneapolis Department – and, potentially, others in the future – as a opportunity to reinvent policing to a new level.
“They must establish with the community what the rules of police-citizen engagement will be, when can the police interact, what are the expectations for them and for the city,” he said. “This needs to be decided collaboratively, and very few places have done so.”
Efforts to hold police officers accountable for cases of brutality and abuse often come up against a justice system that was designed to protect police officers from prosecution. In recent decades, even as civil rights have been won, law enforcement agencies – which have long acted to enforce Jim Crow laws and other forms of segregation – have erected barriers to a greater responsibility.
In the wake of the civil rights movement, just as juries have become more likely to side with a black or brown plaintiff alleging police brutality, police unions have put in place protections for officers that make it more difficult filing charges first.
Minneapolis is a prime example, Kenney said. “Minneapolis has a very strident union, they have a reputation for that,” he said. “So a lot of the reform that’s going to take place has to be done there.”
Minnesota is one of many states whose legal code includes a so-called law enforcement officer’s bill of rights – in effect a law establishing roadblocks to the investigation and prosecution of police misconduct. Maryland was the first state to enact a bill of rights for law enforcement officers in the 1970s; this month, it also became the first state to repeal one.
In Minneapolis, police department oversight is consolidated under the mayor’s office, making it virtually impossible for city council to enforce structural changes. Council member Cunningham said he welcomed the Justice Department’s investigation, but added that he was concerned that any proposed reform would amount to “applying a coat of paint to a house with a crumbling foundation. “.
He pointed to a proposal he and two other council members had put forward that would amend the city’s charter to replace the police department with a public security bureau. “Right now we have all of our public security functions scattered throughout the city government,” he said. “They are not organized in any meaningful way and the police department operates almost entirely separately from the city of Minneapolis as an agency.”
His proposal “would do away with the police service as a stand-alone service” and place it under the supervision of a public safety commissioner.
The Chauvin indictment, which resulted in his conviction on all three counts, was rare in that it relied on damning and steadfast testimony from fellow Chauvin officers. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said Chauvin “absolutely” violated departmental policies and ethics by placing Floyd on the sidewalk with his knee for more than nine minutes.
It is extremely rare to see a law enforcement officer – let alone a chief – testify in such simple and withered terms about the misconduct of another police officer. Even when this happens, the doctrine of qualified immunity, federally enshrined by the Supreme Court, has made it virtually impossible for victims and their families to seek civil damages from officers in cases of excessive force.
Democrats in Congress have introduced several bills to reform or reverse the previous one, but so far they face staunch Republican opposition – driven in part by the close relationship between Trump’s allies and the union forces of Trump. order.
After the Chauvin verdict, President Biden called on Congress to pass major legislation setting higher standards for officer conduct and increased accountability. Such a bill would likely require at least 10 Republican support votes.
“George Floyd was assassinated almost a year ago. There is significant police reform legislation on his behalf, ”Biden said, referring to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has now passed the House two years in a row. “It shouldn’t take a whole year to get there.”
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