WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced on Wednesday a sweeping investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department, signaling that the Biden administration will seek to combat police abuses around the country and apply stricter federal oversight to local forces.
The Justice Department will examine whether the Minneapolis police routinely use excessive force or treat minorities unfairly. The inquiry will also scrutinize police training and accountability practices, among other issues. Mr. Garland’s announcement came a day after the conviction of former Officer Derek Chauvin in the murder last year of George Floyd, a Black man whose death spurred the largest racial justice protests in decades.
“Good officers do not want to work in systems that allow bad practices,” Mr. Garland said in brief remarks delivered at the Justice Department. “Officers welcome accountability because accountability is an essential part of building trust with the community and public safety requires public trust.”
The Minneapolis police have long faced accusations of racism. Black residents are more likely to be pulled over, arrested or roughed up than white residents. Black people, who account for 20 percent of the city’s population, made up more than 60 percent of the victims in city police shootings from late 2009 through May 2019, police data shows.
The police force pledged to cooperate with the federal inquiry. “I look forward to sharing the great work done by our teams, day in and day out, with the Department of Justice and getting their feedback on how we can serve our communities even better,” Chief Medaria Arradondo said in a statement, adding that he had sought federal help in overhauling the department for three years. Chief Arradondo testified against Mr. Chauvin this month.
President Biden had vowed as a candidate to fight excessive force by the police, and he called on lawmakers on Tuesday to resurrect the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a measure by Democrats aimed at curbing police misconduct and racial discrimination. Lawmakers in both parties said on Wednesday that they hoped Mr. Chauvin’s conviction could help revive the bill, which seeks to curtail qualified immunity for officers, ease the way for prosecutions and mandate more changes for departments.
Mr. Chauvin is being held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in the state’s only maximum-security prison, according to the authorities. Though officials at the prison in a suburb of St. Paul say Mr. Chauvin is being isolated for his own safety, prisoners are often sent to the wing as a punishment.
The Justice Department inquiry is a return to robust federal oversight of local policing that had been a hallmark of the Obama era. During the Trump administration, the Justice Department largely stopped opening civil investigations into broad police misconduct, known as pattern-or-practice investigations.
Such inquiries sometimes end in consent decrees, court-approved deals between the department and local governments that create and enforce a road map for training and operational changes. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions had curbed the use of consent decrees, calling them unfair to police departments.
Former Attorney General William P. Barr opposed opening an investigation into the Minneapolis police last summer, officials said at the time, saying that officers were struggling to keep control of a city hammered by protests.
Mr. Barr instead offered financial help and training for the department to address its issues — incentives that the Obama administration also used to improve police forces — but the Minneapolis City Council declined the offer, according to a city official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe officials’ deliberations.
Mr. Garland restored the Justice Department’s use of consent decrees last week and called pattern-or-practice investigations “an important tool of the Justice Department to ensure police accountability” in a recent interview with ABC News.
He has also characterized civil rights issues, including addressing police misconduct, as one of his top priorities. He has said that he sees Vanita Gupta, a well-known civil rights lawyer who was confirmed on Wednesday to serve as the Justice Department’s No. 3 official, as crucial to that mission, along with Kristen Clarke, Mr. Biden’s choice to run the department’s Civil Rights Division.
“They have skills that I do not have,” Mr. Garland told civil rights leaders last week. “They have experiences that I do not have.”
But overhauling police departments has always been a balancing act for the department, which relies heavily on state and local police forces to help fight crime. Mr. Garland and his top deputies were confirmed with broad support from police groups, and they have all said they do not support progressive proposals like defunding the police.
That leaves the Justice Department as one of his most powerful weapons to fight police excesses. Because convictions in high-profile police killings are rare, the department has considered pattern-or-practice investigations a vital tool for overhauling police practices.
In the case of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy shot to death in 2014 by a Cleveland police officer, Justice Department officials opted not to seek an indictment of the officer, but did obtain a consent decree to overhaul the Cleveland Police Department.
Tamir’s family has asked Mr. Garland to reopen the inquiry into his death in light of a New York Times report that Trump-era officials stopped prosecutors from pursuing a false statements case against the officer.
Federal prosecutors also face a high bar in pursuing charges of civil rights violations against the police. Years after a Staten Island grand jury declined to charge Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, whom officers were trying to arrest on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes, the Justice Department said it would not file civil rights charges against the officer. Officials said prosecutors were unlikely to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he willfully violated Mr. Garner’s civil rights.
Like Mr. Floyd, Mr. Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe” as Officer Pantaleo wrapped his arm around his neck and squeezed. Mr. Garner’s death, also captured on video, prompted nationwide protests and helped to catalyze the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Justice Department is enforcing 16 settlements with law enforcement agencies, including 12 consent decrees. Since January 2017, it has concluded the implementation of consent decrees in East Haven, Conn.; in Warren, Ohio; and with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona.
It also has four open investigations into law enforcement agencies, including two in Orange County, Calif.; another in Springfield, Mass.; and now in Minneapolis.
The department told officials there on Wednesday morning before Mr. Garland’s announcement that it would be investigating the police.
Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota noted in a statement that the state’s Department of Human Rights had opened its own civil rights investigation and obtained “a groundbreaking temporary restraining order” against the department. Now, “under the leadership of President Biden and Attorney General Garland, the United States Department of Justice is also answering the call,” Mr. Walz said.
Mr. Garland said the federal investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department was separate from the existing Justice Department criminal investigation into whether Mr. Chauvin violated Mr. Floyd’s civil rights.
The broader inquiry will be led by career lawyers and staff in the department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota. They have already contacted community groups and residents and will question police officers as well, Mr. Garland said.
In addition to examining whether the department routinely uses excessive force — including during protests — investigators will look into whether officers’ treatment of people with behavioral health disabilities is unlawful. They will also review the department’s policies, including whether they are effective at ensuring that police officers act lawfully.
Mr. Floyd’s death underscored longstanding allegations of racism against the Minneapolis police force that have been so serious and sustained that Chief Arradondo sued his own department earlier in his career. Black residents have often filed excessive force complaints against Minneapolis officers, including Mr. Chauvin, who pinned Mr. Floyd to the ground for more than nine minutes.
Officers already felt pressure because of the scrutiny from community members and elected leaders over the years, said Inspector Charles Adams of the Minneapolis Police Department. While a Justice Department investigation could be beneficial, he said, he also expressed concern that officers could be more reluctant to police proactively out of fear that an interaction could go wrong.
“Now that’s going to heighten it even more,” he said.
If federal investigators find that the department has engaged in unlawful policing, Mr. Garland said, the Justice Department would issue a public report. It can also sue the department and enter into a settlement agreement or consent decree to help ensure that the department is overhauled.
The challenges in addressing systemic racial inequities “are deeply woven into our history,” Mr. Garland said, adding that it would take time and effort to build “trust between community and law enforcement.”
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and John Eligon contributed reporting from Minneapolis.