Derek Chauvin had worked in the Minneapolis Police Department for nearly two decades, amassing a history of abuse allegations before murdering George Floyd on May 25, 2020.
When protesters flooded the streets of Minneapolis after Floyd’s murder, they said they were indignant but not surprised – Minneapolis’ black community almost never had a trusting relationship with its police force, in a dynamic that is common across the country.
When the protest movement set records last spring, Minneapolis City Council backed a motion to completely wind down the police force and replace them with a new unit. The protesters’ calls for “an end to policing as we know it” were “a mantra to ease the pain of the city,” the Times reporter said Astead W. Herndon Let’s put it then, and it seemed that lawmakers – at least at the city level – were about to go beyond minor reforms.
But these efforts quickly subsided. Within a few weeks, some city lawmakers returned their commitment to abolish the department, saying they supported the police rethinking but did not immediately replace the police. Since then, local police reform efforts have failed, in part due to a backlash from the city’s powerful police union.
Some city council members who have consistently advocated a major overhaul of Minneapolis’ policing failed to appear Tuesday when Mayor Jacob Frey, who has taken a more moderate line, delivered a speech following Chauvin’s judgment.
Philippe Cunningham, a councilor who is doing a masters degree in criminal justice online from John Jay College, was one of those who failed to show up.
“I think we are at a moment when we are urged to act urgently,” he said. “We are able to continue the work of reshaping and reshaping 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 in the way police work in the city. Merrick Garland, the US attorney general, announced Wednesday that the Justice Department had opened an investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department. This comes on top of a similar investigation conducted by Attorney General Keith Ellison.
These types of sample and field investigations often result in judicial agreements between federal prosecutors and local governments designed to guide a city’s police force through a thorough reform process. This would most likely be done through a settlement agreement known as a Consent Decree, which guarantees action to end illegal practices within the department.
Under President Donald Trump, the Justice Department had stopped using consent ordinances to force reforms in the police force, but Garland restored them last week.
Dennis Kenney, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College and a former police officer, said the Department of Justice, in a review of Minneapolis policing, will most likely seek two-way reforms: restricting the use of force and increasing accountability for police officers alleged wrongdoing .
While the Obama administration increased the use of consent ordinances against city police departments, Kenney described the investigation into the Minneapolis department – and possibly others in the future – as an opportunity to redefine policing on a new level.
“You need to work with the community to determine what the rules for police and citizen engagement will be, when the police can interact, what expectations will be placed on them and the city,” he said. “That has to be decided together, and very few places have done that.”
Efforts to hold police officers accountable for cases of brutality and abuse often come across a judicial system designed to protect officers from prosecution. Over the past few decades, law enforcement agencies, who have long advocated compliance with Jim Crow laws and other forms of segregation, have created barriers to greater accountability despite civil rights gains.
In the wake of the civil rights movement, as it became more likely that juries could side with a black or brown plaintiff alleging police brutality, police unions have put in place protections for officials that make it harder to bring charges.
Minneapolis is a prime example of this, said Kenney. “Minneapolis has a very strict union and they have a good reputation for that,” he said. “Much of the reforms that are going to take place must take place there.”
Minnesota is one of many states whose statutes contain a so-called Police Officer’s Bill of Rights – effectively a law establishing roadblocks for investigating and prosecuting police wrongdoing. Maryland was the first state to enact a Bill of Rights for law enforcement officers in the 1970s. That month it also became the first state to pick one up.
In Minneapolis, police oversight is being consolidated under the mayor’s office, making it virtually impossible for the city council to push through structural changes. Cunningham, the councilor, said he welcomed the Justice Department’s investigation, but added that he was concerned that any proposed reforms could be tantamount to “putting paint on a house that has crumbling foundations”.
He pointed to a proposal that he and two other councilors had made that would change city law to replace the police department with a public security bureau. “Right now we have all public safety functions distributed throughout the city government,” he said. “They’re not organized in any meaningful way, and the police department operates almost entirely separate from the city of Minneapolis as an agency.”
His proposal would “remove the police department as a separate department” and place it under the supervision of a public safety officer.
Chauvin’s indictment, which led to his conviction on all three counts, was a rarity in that it relied on damned and unshakable testimony from Chauvin’s colleagues. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testified that Chauvin “absolutely” violated the department’s policies and ethics when he stuck Floyd with his knee on the sidewalk for more than nine minutes.
It is extremely rare for a law enforcement officer – let alone a boss – to testify in such uncomplicated and faded manner about the wrongdoing of another officer. Even if this happens, the Federal Supreme Court’s doctrine of qualified immunity has largely made it impossible for victims and their families to seek civil damages from officials for excessive violence.
Democrats in Congress have tabled several bills reform or turning back set the precedent, but so far they have faced strong Republican opposition – enlivened in part by the close relationship between Trump’s allies and law enforcement unions.
Following Chauvin’s ruling, President Biden urged Congress to pass important laws that set stricter standards for civil servants’ behavior and increased accountability. Such a bill would likely require at least 10 Republican support votes.
“George Floyd was murdered almost a year ago. There is meaningful police reform legislation in his name, ”Biden said, referring to that George Floyd Justice in the Police Actthat has now passed the house for two consecutive years. “It shouldn’t take a year to do this.”
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