Home News New Attorney General Merrick Garland launches investigation into Minneapolis PD

New Attorney General Merrick Garland launches investigation into Minneapolis PD

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Andy Mannix

Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS – The U.S. Department of Justice will conduct a sweeping investigation into whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a “pattern and practice” of illegal conduct, including whether officers routinely used excessive force during protests.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the investigation Wednesday morning, the morning after a Hennepin County jury found ex-officer Derek Chauvin guilty in the murder of George Floyd. Garland said he’s watched closely as communities in Minneapolis have reeled from the trauma of police violence.

“Yesterday’s verdict in the state criminal trial does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis,” Garland said.

The investigation will seek to establish whether the state’s largest police department is engaging in practices that promote or allow systemic wrongdoing. Over the next several months, the independent civil rights probe will bring Justice Department investigators inside the walls of the police department and out in the community to talk to potential victims. It will be conducted by a combination of Justice Department “experienced” attorneys and other personnel in Minnesota and from the main office in Washington, D.C., Garland said.

The pattern and practice probe will runs parallel to the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation into Chauvin. Leading up to the trial, the federal prosecutors ramped up calling witnesses before a grand jury, signaling a possible round of federal civil rights charges for Chauvin. Sources familiar with those secretive proceedings say federal prosecutors are investigating Chauvin’s use of force on Floyd and a 2017 arrest during which Chauvin pinned a 14-year-old with his knee.

The decision to open a pattern and practice investigation in Minneapolis marks a reversal in strategy from the Trump administration, which effectively abandoned these types of far-reaching probes into police departments. In the weeks after George Floyd’s death last summer, then-Attorney General Bill Barr drew criticism from former Justice Department officials when he refused to order such an investigation of the Minneapolis department.

This investigation will focus on whether Minneapolis police engaged in a pattern of unlawful excessive force, discriminatory policing, using force against activities protected by the First Amendment and use of force not in compliance with laws protecting people with mental illnesses and disabilities, according to sources familiar with the investigation. It will also assess the police department’s systems of accountability, and whether new mechanisms should be implemented to protect the constitutional rights of people in Minneapolis.

“Congress gave the department the authority to conduct civil pattern and practice investigations, which look beyond individual incidents to assess systemic failures,” said Garland. “Those investigations allow the department to determine whether a police department has a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing.”

Garland said he believes most of the nation’s police behave lawfully and honorably, and will welcome the effort to hold bad cops accountable. “I strongly believe that good officers do not want to work in systems that allow bad practices,” he said. “Accountability is an essential part of building trust with the community, and public safety requires public trust.”

If the Justice Department finds systemic wrongdoing, it will ultimately report its findings to the public. The federal civil rights division will seek to work with Minneapolis police, with input from the community, to identify ways to address the deficiencies.

“This usually takes the form of a negotiated agreement that incorporates specific remedies and that becomes a federal court order overseen by an independent monitor,” according to the Justice Department’s website.

If the civil rights division can’t reach an agreement with Minneapolis on how to reform the police department, the Justice Department has authority to file a lawsuit to force changes.

The investigation in Minneapolis shares similarities with the Justice Department’s investigation into the Chicago Police Department. Both were instigated by police killings of Black men that were initially falsely characterized by police officials.

In Chicago, dash-camera footage showed officer Jason Van Dyke shooting and killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald as he walked away from the officer. The video, released by court order 13 months after the shooting, disproved the police department’s initial report that McDonald had been acting erratically and lunged at the officer with a knife. Many people were outraged, accusing Chicago police of trying to cover up a murder.

Similarly, in Minneapolis, a police department spokesman released a statement after Floyd’s death, titled: “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” The news release described a suspected money forger who “physically resisted” police, during which time the officers “noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.”

Cellphone footage recorded by a bystander and published online revealed Floyd died pleading for his life while being restrained by three police officers. Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder blamed the misleading news release on not having all the facts in a fluid situation.

In 2017, after an investigation lasting nearly two years into the Chicago department, the Justice Department announced it had found evidence of a pattern of illegal behavior, including deadly force. The civil rights investigation found that the conduct stems from “systemic deficiencies in training and accountability, including the failure to train officers in de-escalation and the failure to conduct meaningful investigations of uses of force.”

As a result, the city of Chicago signed an agreement to create a federal court-enforceable consent decree addressing the problems.

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