The Justice Department is opening a sweeping investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis after a former officer was convicted in the killing of George Floyd there, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Wednesday.
The decision comes a day after former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death last May, setting off a wave of relief across the country. The death prompted months of mass protests against policing and the treatment of Black people in the U.S.
The Justice Department was already investigating whether Chauvin and the other officers involved in Floyd’s death violated his civil rights.
“Yesterday’s verdict in the state criminal trial does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis,” Garland said.
The new investigation is known as a “pattern or practice” — examining whether there is a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing — and will be a more sweeping probe of the entire police department and may result in major changes to policing there.
It will examine the use of force by police officers, including force used during protests, and whether the department engages in discriminatory practices. It will also look into the department’s handling of misconduct allegations and its treatment of people with behavioral health issues and will assess the department’s current systems of accountability, Garland said.
A senior Justice Department official said prosecutors chose to announce the probe a day after the verdict because they did not want to do anything to interfere with Chauvin’s trial. The official would not discuss details of the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Three other ex-Minneapolis police officers charged in Floyd’s death will be tried together beginning Aug. 23. The official said their trial is far enough off that officials believed it was still appropriate to make the announcement Wednesday, even though they are still awaiting trial on state charges.
It’s unclear whether the years under investigation will begin when Floyd died or before. Garland said a public report would be issued, if the department finds a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing. The department could also bring a lawsuit against the police department, which in the past have typically ended in settlement agreements or consent decrees to force changes.
The Minneapolis Police Department is also being investigated by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which is looking into the department’s policies and practices over the last decade to see if it engaged in systemic discriminatory practices.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said city officials “welcome the investigation as an opportunity to continue working toward deep change and accountability in the Minneapolis Police Department.” The city council also issued a statement supporting the investigation, saying its work had been constrained by local laws and that it welcomes “new tools to pursue transformational, structural changes to how the City provides for public safety.”
The Justice Department official said attorneys from the department’s civil rights division are on the ground in Minneapolis, working with the U.S. attorney’s office and have been speaking with community groups and others.
Floyd, 46, was arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill for a pack of cigarettes at a corner market. He panicked, pleaded that he was claustrophobic and struggled with police when they tried to put him in a squad car. They put him on the ground instead.
The centerpiece of the case was bystander video of Floyd, handcuffed behind his back, gasping repeatedly, “I can’t breathe,” and onlookers yelling at Chauvin to stop as the officer pressed his knee on or close to Floyd’s neck for what authorities say was about 9½ minutes, including several minutes after Floyd’s breathing had stopped and he had no pulse.
Floyd’s death May 25 became a flashpoint in the national conversation about the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement and sparked worldwide protests.
At trial, Chauvin’s defense attorney persistently suggested Chauvin’s knee wasn’t on Floyd’s neck for as long as prosecutors argued, suggesting instead it was across Floyd’s back, shoulder blades and arm.
The decision to announce a sweeping Justice Department investigation comes as President Joe Biden has promised his administration would not rest after the verdict. In a Tuesday evening speech, he said much more needed to be done.
“‘I can’t breathe.’ Those were George Floyd’s last words,” Biden said. “We can’t let those words die with him. We have to keep hearing those words. We must not turn away. We can’t turn away.”
The Justice Department had previously considered opening a pattern or practice investigation into the police department soon after Floyd’s death, but then-Attorney General Bill Barr was hesitant to do so at the time, fearing that it could cause further divisions in law enforcement amid widespread protests and civil unrest, three people familiar with the matter told the AP.
Jury’s verdict swift
After three weeks of testimony, Chauvin’s trial ended swiftly: barely over a day of jury deliberations, then just minutes for the verdicts to be read — guilty, guilty and guilty — and Derek Chauvin was handcuffed and taken away to prison.
Chauvin, 45, could be sent to prison for decades when he is sentenced in about two months in a case that triggered worldwide protests, violence and a furious reexamination of racism and policing in the U.S.
The verdict set off jubilation mixed with sorrow across the city and around the nation. Hundreds of people poured into the streets of Minneapolis, some running through traffic with banners. Drivers blared their horns in celebration.
“Today, we are able to breathe again,” Floyd’s younger brother Philonise said at a joyous family news conference where tears streamed down his face as he likened Floyd to the 1955 Mississippi lynching victim Emmett Till, except that this time there were cameras around to show the world what happened.
On Wednesday, Philonise Floyd described his thoughts while watching Chauvin being handcuffed. He recalled to ABC’s “Good Morning America” how it appeared “a lot easier” on Chauvin than when his brother was handcuffed before his death, but said it still represented accountability.
“It makes us happier knowing that his life, it mattered, and he didn’t die in vain,” he said.
The jury of six whites and six Black or multiracial people came back with its verdict after about 10 hours of deliberations over two days. The now-fired white officer was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Chauvin’s face was obscured by a COVID-19 mask, and little reaction could be seen beyond his eyes darting around the courtroom. His bail was immediately revoked. Sentencing will be in two months; the most serious charge carries up to 40 years in prison.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson followed Chauvin out of the courtroom without comment.
Biden welcomed the verdict, saying Floyd’s death was “a murder in full light of day, and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world” to see systemic racism.
But he warned: “It’s not enough. We can’t stop here. We’re going to deliver real change and reform. We can and we must do more to reduce the likelihood that tragedies like this will ever happen again.”
The jury’s decision was hailed around the country as justice by other political and civic leaders and celebrities, including former President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a white man, who said on Twitter that Floyd “would still be alive if he looked like me. That must change.”
At a park next to the Minneapolis courthouse, a hush fell over a crowd of about 300 as they listened to the verdict on their cellphones. Then a great roar went up, with many people hugging, some shedding tears.
At the intersection where Floyd was pinned down, a crowd chanted, “One down, three to go!” — a reference to the three other fired Minneapolis officers facing trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting murder in Floyd’s death.
Janay Henry, who lives nearby, said she felt grateful and relieved.
“I feel grounded. I can feel my feet on the concrete,” she said, adding that she was looking forward to the “next case with joy and optimism and strength.”
Jamee Haggard, who brought her biracial 4-year-old daughter to the intersection, said: “There’s some form of justice that’s coming.”
The verdict was read in a courthouse ringed with concrete barriers and razor wire and patrolled by National Guard troops, in a city on edge against another round of unrest — not just because of the Chauvin case but because of the deadly police shooting of a young Black man, Daunte Wright, in a Minneapolis suburb April 11.
The jurors’ identities were kept secret and will not be released until the judge decides it is safe to do so.
It is unusual for police officers to be prosecuted for killing someone on the job. And convictions are extraordinarily rare.
Out of the thousands of deadly police shootings in the U.S. since 2005, fewer than 140 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter, according to data maintained by Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University. Before Tuesday, only seven had been convicted of murder.
Juries often give police officers the benefit of the doubt when they claim they had to make split-second, life-or-death decisions. But that was not an argument Chauvin could easily make.
The narrative of Floyd’s death began with a late-night Minneapolis police news release that said Floyd “appeared to be suffering medical distress” after he resisted arrest and was handcuffed. Once teenager Darnella Frazier’s bystander video surfaced, a department spokesman said it became clear the statement was inaccurate, and the “Blue Wall of Silence” that often protects police accused of wrongdoing rapidly crumbled.
The Minneapolis police chief quickly called it “murder” and fired all four officers, and the city reached a staggering $27 million settlement with Floyd’s family as jury selection was underway.
Police-procedure experts and law enforcement veterans inside and outside the Minneapolis department, including the chief, testified for the prosecution that Chauvin used excessive force and went against his training.
Medical experts for the prosecution said Floyd died of asphyxia, or lack of oxygen, because his breathing was constricted by the way he was held down on his stomach, his hands cuffed behind him, a knee on his neck and his face jammed against the ground.
Chauvin’s attorney called a police use-of-force expert and a forensic pathologist to try to make the case that Chauvin acted reasonably against a struggling suspect and that Floyd died because of a heart condition and his illegal drug use. Floyd had high blood pressure and narrowed arteries, and fentanyl and methamphetamine were found in his system.
Under the law, police have certain leeway to use force and are judged according to whether their actions were “reasonable” under the circumstances.
The defense also tried to make the case that Chauvin and the other officers were hindered in their duties by what they perceived as a growing, hostile crowd.
Chauvin did not testify, and all that the jury or the public ever heard by way of an explanation from him came from a police body-camera video after an ambulance had taken the 6-foot-4, 223-pound Floyd away. Chauvin told a bystander: “We gotta control this guy ’cause he’s a sizable guy … and it looks like he’s probably on something.”
The prosecution’s case also included tearful testimony from onlookers who said the police kept them back when they protested what was happening.
Frazier, who shot the crucial video, said Chauvin gave the bystanders a “cold” and “heartless” stare. She and others said they felt a sense of helplessness and lingering guilt from witnessing Floyd’s slow-motion death.
“It’s been nights I stayed up, apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more, and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” she testified.