Civil-rights investigation finds officers engage in abusive conduct like the kind that led to the 2020 murder
MINNEAPOLIS—The Minneapolis Police routinely discriminate and use excessive force against residents, the Justice Department found in a sweeping civil-rights investigation launched after an officer’s 2020 killing of George Floyd sparked national outcry over racial injustice and policing.
Attorney General Merrick Garland and other senior Justice Department officials announced the findings on Friday, the next step in a process that will lead to a court-enforceable agreement requiring Minneapolis to make specific changes to its long-troubled police force. Garland said city officials had begun entering into a consent decree requiring them to work with the Justice Department on a series of fixes to be overseen by an independent monitor. “Our investigation found that the systemic problems in MPD made what happened to George Floyd possible,” the department wrote in a blistering 92-page report, saying the agency also lacks the rigorous training and supervision to prevent such abuses.
Floyd’s murder in May 2020 touched off nationwide protests and bipartisan calls for a transformation of American policing. Video footage showed former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for around nine minutes as Floyd, who was Black, cried out that he couldn’t breathe and lost consciousness.
Chauvin, who is white, was convicted of second degree murder in state court and pleaded guilty to a federal charge that he violated Floyd’s rights. Three other officers who were there during the arrest—Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng—were also convicted or pleaded guilty to state and federal charges.
“George Floyd should be alive today,” said Garland, who spoke with his family earlier Friday.
The killing changed the city and spurred a number of changes to its police department, which has long had a tense relationship with the Black community. Floyd’s killing was one of several by police that have rocked the Minneapolis region in recent years.
His death caused turmoil within the police department, as hundreds of officers quit and the agency struggled to replace them. Activists and the city council moved to disband the police force, a move that was ultimately scrapped. Voters in 2021 rejected a measure that would have replaced the agency with a public-health oriented department of public safety.
The Justice Department’s civil-rights investigation, launched in April 2021, found Minneapolis officers routinely used unnecessary force, both in firing weapons and non-deadly techniques, including now prohibited neck restraints like the kind used against Floyd. Investigators found officers used neck restraints during at least 198 encounters from 2016 to 2022, 44 of which ended without an arrest. Such restraints were often used on people who had “merely angered the officer,” the report said, and sometimes against people who posed no threat at all.
“Most of these restraints were unreasonable,” the report says. In one example, an officer crept up behind a man who had become agitated during a police encounter and wrapped his arm around the man’s neck until he was unconscious, and officers handcuffed him after he slumped to the ground.
The Justice Department said it found Minneapolis officers used neck restraints and chokeholds even after the city banned the practice in June 2020, a “positive step that met considerable resistance” from officers who told investigators they saw it as an overreaction to Floyd’s death that could lead to more uses of force.
“‘If you can’t touch the head or neck, the result is you punch ’em,’” one officer told investigators, the report said. “These views took hold as MPD did not train officers in alternative tactics until the year after the ban.”
City leaders acknowledged they have more work to do. The report recommended 28 changes that Garland said would improve public safety and build community trust.
“We are going to use these findings to better policing in the city of Minneapolis,” Mayor Jacob Frey said. “We understand that change is nonnegotiable.”
A representative for the police union didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment. Police Chief Brian O’Hara said the department would be transparent and “provide an ongoing assessment of both our successes as well as our challenges.”
Trahern Crews, founder of Black Lives Matter Minnesota, called the Justice Department report a baby step in the right direction of addressing racial disparities in everything from criminal justice to wealth gaps to healthcare. “We have made some progress with this, but to keep it and make it more tangible we’re going to have to keep fighting,” he said.
Activists on Friday greeted the report with a mix of appreciation and impatience.
Michelle Gross, president of a group called Communities United Against Police Brutality, said her group had assembled 2,300 written accounts of residents about their experience with police and submitted them to the Justice Department. “The community has played a significant role in this investigation,” she said in a press conference in City Hall shortly after the Justice Department unveiled its report.
Prominent social-justice activist Nekima Levy Armstrong said she was happy public officials were being held accountable. “We do not feel safe,” she said. “We do not have trust in the system or these individuals because they have failed us time and time and time and time again.”
At George Floyd Square, the community-led memorial that has taken over the corner where Floyd was killed, Angela Harrelson, Floyd’s aunt, chatted Friday afternoon with out-of-towners who had come to pay their respects. The DOJ report is part of the positive changes that have come out of her nephew’s horrific death, she said.
“It’s just validation of all the insecurities and worries and concerns Black and Brown people have been talking about for years and decades,” she said. “My nephew’s killing opened a door for change—not just opened the door, change is here.”
The report was the result of an investigation conducted by officials from the Justice Department’s civil-rights division and the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota. It is one of several Garland has opened in places including Louisville, Phoenix and Oklahoma, as the Biden administration takes an active role in trying to transform local law enforcement. Such probes can end in what is known as a consent decree, mandating a series of changes.
President Biden on Friday called on Congress to pass legislation aimed at improving policing, calling the Justice Department’s work “a positive step forward, but we know there is still more work to be done—especially in communities of color, where the bonds of trust are frayed or broken.”
The Minneapolis investigation identified a number of systemic problems, including that police disproportionately stop Black and Native American people; that they search Black people more often; and that they use force more often against Black and Native American people than white people doing the same things.
After Floyd’s death, officers largely stopped documenting race after stops, making data on racial disparities unreliable. But even spotty numbers showed significant racial disparities, said Kristen Clarke, head of the Justice Department’s civil-rights division.
Other problems included unjustified shootings and inappropriate force against people who were already restrained.
In one example, an off-duty officer fired his gun at a car of six people within three seconds of getting out of his squad car. In another, an officer in 2017 fatally shot an unarmed woman who had called 911 to report a possible rape near her home, because she “spooked him” when she approached his squad car.
Investigators also found a pattern of officers failing to intervene when they saw their colleagues using excessive force, which happened in Floyd’s death.
The Justice Department also faulted police for violating the First Amendment rights of demonstrators, at times beating, kicking and shoving protesters who posed no threat. In one case, an officer put his full weight on a passive protester, restraining him by the neck as he lay face down.
Officers also retaliated against journalists by restricting their ability to report the news, in one case forcefully pushing a reporter’s head into the pavement while he was filming and shouting, “I’m the press.” When the reporter showed a press credential, the sergeant pepper sprayed him.
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