The Justice Department has opened a civil investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department after Tuesday’s murder conviction of a former police officer for the death of George Floyd, a reassertion of a federal civil rights tool that withered during the Trump administration.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced that the “pattern or practice” probe will look beyond individual incidents to assess whether the Minneapolis Police Department systemically engages in unlawful or unconstitutional policing.
Democrats and Republicans have been divided on the Justice Department’s use of those probes, which can result in a civil lawsuit and the local agency entering a settlement or consent decree with the Justice Department to resolve any issues.
Most recently, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a November 2018 memo restricting the Justice Department’s use of such consent decrees during the Trump administration. Garland rescinded that memo Friday.
Senators raised the issue of consent decrees during Garland’s confirmation hearing in February, when the former federal judge said he was “shocked by what I saw on videos of Black Americans being killed over this last summer.”
“I do think it created a moment in the national life that brought attention from people who had not seen what Black Americans and other members of communities of color had known for decades,” Garland said at the time. “But it did bring everything to the fore and created a moment in which we have an opportunity to make dramatic changes and really bring forth equal justice under the law, which is our commitment of the Justice Department.”
The new probe also came amid Senate debate over the confirmation of Vanita Gupta to be the No. 3 official at the Justice Department and Kristen Clarke to run the Civil Rights Division. The Senate confirmed Gupta, who backs the use of pattern-or-practice investigations, on a 51-49 vote Wednesday afternoon, and the Judiciary Committee is still considering Clarke's nomination.
Garland said Wednesday that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division will look more generally at the Minneapolis Police Department’s possible use of excessive force, including during protests. It will also look at whether the MPD engages in discriminatory conduct, and whether its treatment of those with behavioral health disabilities is unlawful.
The investigation will include a comprehensive review of the MPD’s policies, training, supervision and use-of-force investigations, Garland said. It will also assess the effectiveness of the MPD’s current systems of accountability “and whether other mechanisms are needed to ensure constitutional and lawful policing.”
“Broad participation in this investigation from the community and from law enforcement will be vital to its success,” Garland said. He added that the Justice Department has already reached out to community groups in Minneapolis to hear about their experiences.
The investigation is separate from an ongoing federal investigation into Floyd’s death, which led to protests and unrest nationwide — as well as congressional bills to address police misconduct — after a video showed Officer Derek Chauvin placing his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes despite Floyd saying he couldn’t breathe.
The main Democrat-backed legislation to overhaul policing includes provisions that would ease the Justice Department’s investigations into local law enforcement agencies, such as giving the attorney general subpoena power over evidence and testimony in the probe.
A jury convicted Chauvin of murder Tuesday, and three other former officers face charges related to the incident.