DOJ To Investigate Minneapolis Police Over Possible Patterns Of Excessive Force

Apr 21, 2021
Originally published on April 21, 2021 2:37 pm

Updated April 21, 2021 at 6:03 PM ET

One day after a jury convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on murder charges, the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into possible patterns of discrimination and excessive force among the police department there.

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the new civil inquiry on Wednesday, the first such "pattern or practice" investigation in the Biden administration, which has pledged to build trust between police and communities.

"Today, I am announcing that the Justice Department has opened a civil investigation to determine whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing," Garland said in remarks at the Justice Department.

He said the investigation is separate from the previously announced federal criminal inquiry into George Floyd's death.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told NPR he sees the inquiry as "an opportunity to continue working towards that deep change and accountability that we know that we need in the Minneapolis Police Department, and so to the extent the DOJ can help with that we very much welcome."

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

He said the investigation will look at the use of excessive force, including during protests, and examine the Minneapolis Police Department's accountability systems.

"If the Justice Department concludes that there's reasonable cause to believe there is a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing, we will issue a public report of our conclusions," he said.

The investigation marks a return to increased federal oversight of errant police departments, with a tool the Trump administration used just once in four years to examine a small force in Massachusetts. By contrast, during the Obama years, the Justice Department conducted more than two dozen pattern or practice investigations.

Last week, Garland revoked a Trump-era memo that made it more difficult for the Justice Department's civil rights lawyers to reach consent decrees with state and local governments over policing practices and to seek court approval for independent monitors to check whether police departments were honoring the terms of settlements.

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Attorney General Merrick Garland says the Justice Department will investigate the Minneapolis Police Department. This announcement comes just one day after a jury convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin of murder in the death of George Floyd. This is a return to federal oversight of police forces around the country and one of the Biden administration's key pledges on racial justice. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following this and joins us now. Carrie, thanks for being here.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So a DOJ investigation into a local police department on what specifically, Carrie?

JOHNSON: The attorney general says this is going to be focused on problems with the entire system. They're going to be looking for patterns of excessive force, discriminatory conduct and possible mistreatment of people with behavioral and health problems. They're also going to look at training and how the Minneapolis police currently hold officers accountable. This is all about building trust with communities. Garland says good officers welcome accountability, that public safety requires public trust. And he says we undertake this task with urgency, knowing that change cannot wait.

MARTIN: So I mentioned in the intro that this move indicates a return to federal oversight of this kind. Can you explain more about what that means?

JOHNSON: Sure. During the Obama years, there were about two dozen of these pattern or practice investigations in places we all know, like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore and Chicago. But the Trump administration took a very different approach. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Attorney General Bill Barr viewed local and state police mostly as their partners. They didn't want to make waves. And in fact, there was only one pattern or practice investigation during the Trump years, a small police force in Massachusetts. It's clear now, based on AG Garland's remarks, that times are changing.

MARTIN: So what are the possibilities of the Justice Department actually finding civil rights violations in this new investigation?

JOHNSON: You know, just last Friday, Attorney General Garland revoked a Trump-era memo. It will now be easier for the Justice Department to file civil lawsuits against police forces and eventually to reach consent decrees with state and local governments to try to change behavior in police departments. And importantly, it will also be possible to get independent monitors who are overseen by federal judges to go in and check to see that the police are doing what they promised to do. That form of accountability can be very important in these cases because we know that change is difficult, behavioral change, and having an extra set of eyes on these departments at the federal level and in the judicial branch is an important thing, the Justice Department says.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson on the news coming this morning - U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announcing that the Department of Justice will investigate the Minneapolis Police Department. This comes a day, of course, after the jury in Minneapolis convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin of murder on all three counts in the death of George Floyd. Carrie, thank you so much for your reporting on this. We appreciate it.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.