The US justice department will investigate whether unlawful policing is a pattern at the Minneapolis police department in the wake of former officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction on charges of murdering George Floyd.
The probe was announced by Merrick Garland, US attorney-general, less than 24 hours after a jury in Minneapolis found Chauvin guilty of murdering Floyd last year.
Joe Biden, the US president, said the verdict could potentially be a “moment of significant change”, as his administration looks to deliver on campaign promises to overhaul American policing.
Tuesday’s verdict was hailed by rights advocates as a rare instance of accountability for police killings. Garland warned on Wednesday, however, that further reform of the city’s police department could be needed.
“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,” he said.
The investigation will be a civil one, Garland said, and focus in particular on discrimination and on officers’ use of violence. He said it would publish its findings if it uncovers violations. He added that in such cases, local police departments usually enter into an agreement with the justice department to change their policing policies.
The use of such consent decrees had been restricted under the Trump administration, but Garland has pledged to use them again as a tool to push through reform of local police departments.
“Sometimes consent decrees work well, sometimes they don’t,” said Jeffrey Cramer, managing director at Berkeley Research Group and a former prosecutor who has tried police misconduct cases. “It depends on the culture of the police department itself.
“But it does by definition shine a spotlight on problematic police departments who wouldn’t change if it wasn’t for the federal government coming in.”
In May last year, Chauvin, who is white, knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while arresting him for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd’s death set off worldwide protests against racial injustice and Chauvin’s trial became one of the most closely watched US court cases in years.
After a six-week trial culminating in 10 hours of deliberations, a jury found Chauvin, 45, guilty on all three charges: second-degree and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The second-degree murder count, the most serious charge, carries a prison sentence of up to 40 years.
Biden called Floyd’s family after the verdict. “At least, God, now there is some justice,” he told them. In a subsequent speech at the White House, the president expressed his relief at the result but noted that such verdicts were “much too rare”.
The justice department’s investigation could allow the Biden administration to make some headway on the longstanding issue of US policing reform. Biden had promised to set up a national police oversight commission in his first 100 days, but put that on hold earlier this month to focus instead on passing legislation in Congress.
Last month, the US House of Representatives approved the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would make it easier to convict police officers of federal crimes. Democrats are now seeking Republican support to pass it in the Senate.
The bill would also limit so-called “qualified immunity”, which protects officers from being sued unless they have clearly infringed a person’s rights. Many Republicans, however, refuse to contemplate making changes to qualified immunity.
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