US Politics

After Derek Chauvin verdict, US launches probe into Minneapolis police

A poster with George Floyd's picture and a sign reads that "I can't Breathe" hang from a security fence in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Source: AFP

The federal probe signals an about-face by President Joe Biden from the previous administration of Donald Trump, which refused to pressure police departments despite mounting evidence of racist and abusive practices in a number of cities.

The US Justice Department has announced an investigation into the police department of Minneapolis, Minnesota, signalling the Biden administration's intention to use federal powers to clean up systemic police abuse.

One day after former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering African-American George Floyd, US Attorney General Merrick Garland said the department aimed to "determine whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing".

He said the probe will examine whether the police systematically engaged in the use of excessive force, including during legal protests.

It will also examine whether the city force showed a pattern of discrimination and unlawful treatment of people with behavioural health disabilities.

Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Attorney General Merrick Garland.
AP Pool

The announcement signalled an about-face by President Joe Biden from the previous administration of Donald Trump, which refused to pressure police departments despite mounting evidence of racist and abusive practices in a number of cities.

Mr Garland said the return to such investigations, which aim at forcing police departments to accept reforms under legally binding agreements, was important to restore confidence in police.

"Building trust between community and law enforcement will take time and effort by all of us. But we undertake this task with determination and urgency, knowing that change cannot wait," he said.  

But while Democrats in Congress are keen to pass what they say are long-overdue reforms, they face opposition in the Senate, where Republicans hold half the seats.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act - a sweeping package that bans choke holds, combats racial profiling and restricts officer immunity that shields police from civil lawsuits - passed the House of Representatives, with a vote from just one Republican.

Passage in the Senate would require backing from 10 Republicans. None have signed on, although Mr Biden says he will push for the bill's passage.

George Floyd's death drives probe

The announcement of the federal probe followed the conviction on Tuesday of Derek Chauvin, who was charged with murder after Mr Floyd died on 25 May last year.

Mr Chauvin and three other officers had reported that Mr Floyd, detained on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $US20 bill, died of a "medical incident ostensibly related to alleged drug use".

But bystander video showed Mr Chauvin pressed his knee onto the handcuffed man's neck for more than nine minutes until Mr Floyd expired, while the other officers looked on.

The video sparked an explosion of anger across the country and allegations of persistent police mistreatment of Black people in Minneapolis as well as in other cities.


The investigation is a return to the approach of the 2009-2017 Barack Obama administration - when Mr Biden was vice president - which saw the Justice Department actively intervening where local police departments were seen as abusive.

Fifteen local departments were forced into consent decrees, including those of New Orleans, Baltimore, and Ferguson, Missouri, where the killing of a Black man in 2014 sparked nights of rioting.

The investigations are called "pattern and practice" investigations, to see if police used tactics that regularly violated people's constitutional rights.

If a pattern of abuse is found, the department can pursue a settlement or consent decree with the locality to force reforms, or force action by lawsuit.

Experts say the settlements, which involve a Justice Department-appointed monitor ensuring implementation, have usually resulted in improved policing.

Donald Trump opposed policing the police

In 2017 Mr Trump came to office rejecting allegations of police abuse and racism, and even encouraged police to act toughly when confronted with challenges, including the protests over Mr Floyd's killing last year.

Within weeks of taking office, his attorney general Jeff Sessions declared that it was "not the responsibility of the federal government to manage nonfederal law enforcement agencies".

But Mr Garland made clear that he believed consent decrees bring results, and were supported by local officials.

"Most of our nation's law enforcement officers do their difficult jobs honourably and lawfully. I strongly believe that good officers do not want to work in systems that allow bad practices," Mr Garland said.

"Good officers welcome accountability because accountability is an essential part of building trust with the community and public safety requires public trust."

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