The New Zealand Herald
Justice Dept to investigate Minneapolis police
Use of force, how minorities treated main focus of probe
Attorney General Merrick Garland yesterday announced a sweeping investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department, signalling 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 scrutinise police training and accountability practices, among other issues. 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.
“Officers welcome accountability because accountability is an essential part of building trust with the community and public safety requires public trust,” Garland said.
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 per cent of the city’s population, made up more than 60 per cent 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, adding he had sought federal help in overhauling the department for three years. Arradondo gave evidence against Chauvin this month.
President Joe Biden had vowed as a candidate to fight excessive force by the police, and he called on lawmakers this week 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 yesterday they hoped 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.
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 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 William Barr opposed opening an investigation into the Minneapolis police last summer, officials said at the time, saying officers were struggling to control the city due to protests.
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 deliberations.
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”.
He has also characterised 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, Biden’s choice to run the department’s Civil Rights Division.
“They have skills that I do not
Officers welcome accountability because accountability is an essential part of building trust.
Attorney General Merrick Garland
have,” 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. 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.
Civil rights activists have pressed federal law enforcement officials to do more to curb abuses, but Biden dismayed activists by reversing course on a promised police oversight commission.
That leaves the Justice Department as one of his most powerful weapons to fight police excesses.
Because convictions in highprofile police killings are rare, the department has considered patternor-practice investigations a vital tool for overhauling police practices.
In the case of Tamir Rice, a 12-yearold 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 get a consent decree to overhaul the Cleveland Police Department.
Tamir’s family has asked 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 Garner’s civil rights.
Like Floyd, Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe” as Pantaleo wrapped his arm around his neck and squeezed. Garner’s death, also captured on video, prompted nationwide protests and helped to catalyse 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, Connecticut; 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, California; another in Springfield, Massachusetts; and now in Minneapolis.
Garland said the federal investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department was separate from the existing Justice Department criminal investigation into whether Chauvin violated Floyd’s civil rights.
If federal investigators find that the department has engaged in unlawful policing, 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,” Garland said, adding that it would take time and effort to build “trust between community and law enforcement.”