WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is launching a federal investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Wednesday, one day after a jury found former city police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd.
The department already has an open criminal investigation into Floyd’s murder and whether federal civil rights laws were violated; Garland released a statement immediately after the Chauvin verdict confirming that probe is “ongoing.” But Garland’s latest announcement signals the start of a broader inquiry into whether the Minneapolis Police Department as a whole operates in ways that violate the constitutional rights of residents.
The civil investigation by prosecutors from the Civil Rights Division and the US attorney’s office in Minnesota will focus on whether Minneapolis police had a “pattern or practice” of using excessive force, including during protests; whether they engaged in discriminatory policing; and whether their treatment of people with behavioral health issues was unlawful, Garland said.
The verdict in Chauvin’s case “does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis,” Garland said.
“I know that justice is sometimes slow, sometimes elusive, and sometimes never comes,” Garland said. “The Department of Justice will be unwavering in its pursuit of equal justice under law.”
Pamela Karlan, the principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division, sent a letter on Wednesday to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and other city government and police department officials outlining the scope of the investigation. The letter, which was provided to BuzzFeed News by a spokesperson for the City of Minneapolis, tracks Garland's public announcement about the focus of the probe, and explains that investigators will "review MPD policies, training, supervision, and investigatory files, as well as MPD’s systems of accountability, including misconduct complaint intake, investigation, review, disposition, and discipline."
"We have not reached any conclusions about the subject matter of this investigation," Karlan wrote. "We will consider all relevant information, including information pertaining to the efforts that the City and MPD have undertaken to ensure adherence to the Constitution and federal law. During our investigation, we will seek to speak with City and MPD officials, as well as individuals who have interacted with MPD, including community members and others who may have relevant insights into this matter. We assure you that we will seek to minimize any potential disruption on the City and MPD’s operations during our investigation."
The Minneapolis Police Department released a statement saying that Chief Medaria Arradondo "welcomes this investigation" and that the department would "cooperate fully."
"The Chief understands that the intent of this inquiry is to reveal any deficiencies or unwanted conduct within the department and provide adequate resources and direction to correct them. The Chief has been insistent that he wants to make the MPD the best department possible. With the assistance of the Department of Justice, the Chief believes he will have additional support, some of which he has been seeking over the last three years, to pursue changes he would like to see in his department," the department said.
A senior Justice Department official, speaking on background, said that a team from the Civil Rights Division was already in Minneapolis working with the US attorney's office, but declined to specify when exactly the department began considering whether to formally launch an investigation. The official said the department did not want to take any steps that could interfere with Chauvin's trial and the work of state and local prosecutors, but felt it was appropriate to officially move forward now that the verdict was in. The official said that the Minneapolis Police Department was notified this morning in advance of Garland's public announcement.
There’s a long history of these types of “pattern or practice” investigations by the Justice Department into police departments accused of civil rights violations, and they ramped up under the Obama administration. In 2018, then–attorney general Jeff Sessions dramatically scaled back the tools that prosecutors had available to enforce police reforms, placing new restrictions on when officials could enter into consent decrees that imposed long-term court supervision, as well as the scope of those agreements.
Just one week ago, however, Garland rescinded that Sessions memo and reinstated the department’s previous rules, which gave officials more leeway to sign off on consent decrees and other types of settlements, and removed a requirement that these agreements have a predetermined end date.
Other high-profile police killings of civilians, particularly Black people, have led to these types of oversight agreements, even if individual officers didn’t face prosecution. After officer Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown, a Black man, state and federal investigations cleared him of criminal liability and he wasn’t charged. But a DOJ probe found unconstitutional practices by the Ferguson police department as a whole, and entered into a consent decree with the city in 2016 that mandated a series of changes, from how and when officers could use force to how they handled First Amendment–protected protests.
Garland said the lawyers involved in the investigation would be gathering information from community groups in Minneapolis as well as officers in the department. If DOJ does find a pattern of abuses or other constitutional violations, the department will issue a public report and potentially pursue legal action against the city in court, Garland said, noting the potential for a consent decree or settlement.
"Most of our nation's law enforcement officers do their difficult jobs honorably and lawfully. I strongly believe that good officers do not want to work in systems that allow bad practices. Good officers welcome accountability because accountability is an essential part of building trust with the community, and public safety requires public trust," Garland said.
Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader said in a statement that, "The City welcomes the federal investigation announced today and has already begun working with the Department of Justice team both in Washington D.C. and in Minnesota to help them quickly get this investigation organized and underway.”
Jonathan Smith, who oversaw these types of pattern-or-practice investigations as head of the Civil Rights Division's Special Litigation Section from 2010 to 2015, said that these investigations are labor and time-intensive, involving reviews of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and interviews with hundreds of people. The DOJ team will likely start by combing through documents to understand how the Minneapolis Police Department operates, he said, and those materials can include any written policies and procedures, training programs, excessive force and traffic stop reports, and disciplinary records.
Investigators will spend time with the different communities in Minneapolis that come into contact with police, such as community representatives, faith and civil rights leaders, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, immigrant advocates, and jail officials, Smith said, as well as officers in the department. The DOJ team typically will set up a hotline or email account for the public to submit information and host town hall meetings, he said. Once they've collected all of that information, the career attorneys running the probe will analyze whether there is, in fact, a pattern of constitutional violations and, if so, they'll solicit input from the community about potential reforms.
After all of that work is done, Justice Department attorneys will then try to negotiate an agreement with city officials that they can present to a federal judge, Smith said. Once a consent decree gets the court's approval, the judge will appoint an independent monitor to track the city's progress in complying with the terms of the agreement and whether it's actually making a difference on the ground.
Smith, now the executive director Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said that although political appointees at the Justice Department backed away from these investigations and consent decree enforcement under former president Donald Trump, a number of career attorneys stayed on in the Special Litigation Section who have experience with this kind of work and would be ready to pick it up again.
Garland's announcement "sends a message that the Department of Justice is going to be doing more of these investigations," Smith said. "There was a four-year pause in the Department of Justice using its enforcement authority to ensure that police departments comply with the Constitution under the Trump administration. I’m very encouraged. I hope this is the first of many and expect that it is the first of many."