The U.S. Department of Justice will undertake a sweeping investigation into whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a “pattern and practice” of illegal conduct, including whether officers used excessive force during protests.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the investigation Wednesday, the morning after a Hennepin County jury found ex-officer Derek Chauvin guilty in the murder of George Floyd. Garland said he has watched closely as Minneapolis has reeled from the trauma of police violence.
“Yesterday’s verdict in the state criminal trial does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis,” Garland said.
The investigation, welcomed by 12 City Council members, Mayor Jacob Frey and the police chief, will seek to establish whether the state’s largest police department is engaging in practices that promote or allow systemic wrongdoing.
Justice Department investigators will go inside the walls of the police department and out in the community to talk to potential victims.
“This isn’t about one officer — it’s about the whole department,” said acting Minnesota U.S. Attorney Anders Folk. The process is going to take “months and months,” so people should not expect rapid change, Folk said.
The pattern and practice probe will run parallel to the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation into Chauvin. Leading up to the trial, the federal prosecutors ramped up calling witnesses before a grand jury, signaling a possible round of federal civil rights charges for Chauvin. Sources familiar with those secretive proceedings say federal prosecutors are investigating Chauvin’s use of force on Floyd and a 2017 arrest during which Chauvin pinned a 14-year-old with his knee.
The investigation will also be separate from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights probe, announced after Floyd’s death, which will look at policies, procedures and practices over the past 10 years, and whether the department engaged in systemic discrimination.
The decision to open a pattern and practice investigation in Minneapolis is a reversal from the Trump administration, which effectively abandoned these types of far-reaching probes into police departments. In the weeks after George Floyd’s death last spring, then-Attorney General Bill Barr drew criticism when he refused to order such an investigation of the Minneapolis department.
This investigation will focus on whether Minneapolis police engaged in a pattern of unlawful excessive force, discriminatory policing, use of force against activities protected by the First Amendment and use of force that flouts laws protecting people with mental illnesses and disabilities. It will also assess the police department’s systems of accountability, and whether new mechanisms should be implemented to protect the constitutional rights of people in Minneapolis.
Garland said he believes most of the nation’s police behave lawfully and honorably. “I strongly believe that good officers do not want to work in systems that allow bad practices,” he said. “Accountability is an essential part of building trust with the community, and public safety requires public trust.”
If the Justice Department finds systemic wrongdoing, it will report its findings to the public. The federal civil rights division will seek to work with Minneapolis police, with input from the community, to identify ways to address the deficiencies.
If the civil rights division can’t reach an agreement with Minneapolis on how to reform the police department, the Justice Department has authority to file a lawsuit to force changes.
Chief vows cooperation
City officials, who learned of the investigation a half-hour before the public did, applauded the Justice Department for using its authority to reform Minneapolis police.
Every Minneapolis City Council member except for Alondra Cano signed onto a statement saying they “fully support” the federal investigators in holding accountable “any and all abuses of power and harms to our community and stand ready to aid in this process as full partners.”
“The City Council’s oversight of the Minneapolis Police Department has been historically constrained by the City Charter and state law and we welcome new tools to pursue transformational, structural changes to how the City provides for public safety.”
Frey also released a statement welcoming the investigation, saying Minneapolis must seize on this “generational opportunity” to improve life for the Black community.
Police Chief Medaria Arradondo has pledged to “cooperate fully,” according to a statement from the department. “The Chief has been insistent that he wants to make the MPD the best department possible.”
Activists who have been calling for substantial police reforms, including some who want to abolish the department, responded to news of the federal probe with mixed reviews.
Black Visions, a group that wants Minneapolis to radically rethink its public safety system, called the Justice Department’s announcement a “distraction.”
“The police investigating themselves will never result in needed changes to truly provide public safety to the people of Minneapolis and greater Minnesota,” said spokesperson Kennedy-Ezra Kastle. “The MPD has shown the public and community time and time again that they do not care about the safety of Black people or the larger community.”
D.A. Bullock of Reclaim the Block expressed similar skepticism: “Minneapolis’ violent and murderous police department is built on the Obama Justice Department model of 21st century policing. We don’t expect real change to come out of the DOJ.”
Other activists and civil rights leaders held a news conference outside the courthouse Wednesday, where they said a pattern and practice investigation is long overdue but wanted investigators to expand the scope.
“We have been asking for DOJ assistance — real assistance — since at least 2001,” said Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality. “We have a toxic culture of police in this state, and not just in one department.”
The Minneapolis police union declined to comment.
Similar case in Chicago
The probe in Minneapolis shares similarities with the Justice Department’s investigation into the Chicago Police Department. Both were instigated by police killings of Black men that were initially falsely characterized by police officials.
In Chicago, dash-camera footage showed officer Jason Van Dyke shooting and killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald as he walked away from the officer. The video, released by court order 13 months after the shooting, disproved the police department’s report that McDonald had been acting erratically and lunged at the officer with a knife. Many accused Chicago police of trying to cover up a murder.
Similarly, in Minneapolis, a police department spokesman released a statement after Floyd’s death, titled: “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” The news release described a suspected money forger who “physically resisted” police, during which time the officers “noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.”
Cellphone footage recorded by a bystander and published online revealed Floyd died pleading for his life while being restrained by three police officers. Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder blamed the misleading news release on not having all the facts in a fluid situation.
In 2017, after an investigation lasting nearly two years into the Chicago department, the Justice Department announced it had found a pattern of illegal use of force stemming from “systemic deficiencies in training and accountability.” The city of Chicago signed an agreement to create a federal court-enforceable consent decree addressing the problems.
The focus of the investigation:
• Assess whether Minneapolis police engaged in a pattern of unlawful excessive force
• Assess whether Minneapolis police engaged in a pattern of discriminatory policing
• Assess whether Minneapolis police used force against activities protected by the First Amendment
• Assess whether Minneapolis police used force not in compliance with laws protecting people with mental illnesses and disabilities
• Assess the police department’s systems of accountability
• Assess whether new mechanisms should be implemented to protect the constitutional rights of people in Minneapolis
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036