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‘It Was a Tinderbox.’ How George Floyd’s Killing Highlighted America’s Police Reform Failures

12 minute read

Everything about Derek Chauvin’s case — from his long list of previous conduct complaints to the 44-year-old police officer’s brutal calm as he pressed his knee to George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes until he died— spoke to the decades of failure to address the systemic problems plaguing his employer, the Minneapolis Police Department.

Floyd’s death under the knee of the white MPD officer on May 25 has reignited furor over the persistence of police brutality against people of color in the United States. As Americans gathered to protest in more than 70 cities, they raged against the same tepid solutions proposed by local and national leaders that have fallen far short in the past: opening investigations, firing police officers, and simply promising more reforms.

Nowhere is that pattern clearer than in Minneapolis. More than half a dozen government investigations and reports reviewed by TIME show that the same reforms were recommended time and again over the past two decades in the MPD to increase accountability, curb use-of-force violations and build up community trust — with seemingly little implementation. “People in this community have been very concerned about the Minneapolis Police Department for a long, long time,” says Hans Lee, a pastor at Minneapolis’ Calvary Lutheran Church. “It was a tinderbox.”

Floyd’s killing has refocused attention on both the local factors that led to Minneapolis’ poor record and the ways that President Donald Trump’s Justice Department has made it more difficult at the federal level to rehabilitate police departments accused of systemic abuses. In the wake of Floyd’s death, Trump has not addressed issues of racism and injustice in the country, instead focusing his ire on ensuing protests. His Administration has rolled back a series of reforms that former President Barack Obama instituted to facilitate Justice Department intervention in problematic police forces like the MPD.

“The Department of Justice has clearly indicated that it is not in the businesses of holding agencies responsible for police misconduct,” says Kanya Bennett, the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) senior legislative council leading the organization’s federal work on police use of force. “Agencies like the Minneapolis Police Department, which is the center of attention given the police killing of George Floyd — you know, there should have been DOJ intervention there a long time ago.”

‘A few bad apples’

For black residents of Minneapolis, who make up one-fifth of the city’s population, the outrage over Floyd’s killing followed a sickeningly familiar pattern. Every minute caught on camera leading up to his death seemed to echo previous police abuses in the area. There was Christopher Burns, a 44-year old black man who was killed in front of his children when MPD officers put him in a choke hold in 2002. There was David Smith, a 28-year old mentally ill black man who was killed when an MPD officer pinned him down with his knee for four minutes in 2010. There was 24-year old Jamar Clark, shot by MPD officers who responded to a paramedic call in 2015. There was Philando Castile, a beloved cafeteria worker shot by police in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old child in 2016.

The day after Floyd’s death, Chauvin was fired from the Minneapolis Police Department and has since been charged with second-degree murder. The other three officers on the scene at the time have been charged with aiding and abetting. In Washington, the Justice Department has initiated a civil rights investigation into Floyd’s killing. Vanita Gupta, who led the Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, is among a group of civil rights advocates and lawmakers who are calling for the DOJ to also open what’s known as a “pattern-or-practice” investigation into the MPD, which would focus on rooting out broader issues in the Department beyond Chauvin’s actions. “It’s a really important tool because individual criminal prosecution is insufficient to addressing long standing systemic problems that can exist in police departments,” says Gupta, who now heads The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington D.C.

The Justice Department isn’t ruling out opening a pattern-or-practice investigation in Minneapolis, DOJ officials tell TIME. But they are not rushing in either. The case against the individual officer should play out first while the Justice Department evaluates if it should open the broader investigation, one DOJ official says, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The way that you can ensure the public views your decision-making as credible is if you make methodical and complete decisions,” the official says, adding that it is “premature” to “reflexively” jump to calling for a pattern-or-practice investigation before the underlying criminal conduct at issue has been addressed.

While DOJ weighs whether to go further, some senior members of the Administration have said they do not believe there are systemic problems to investigate. On May 31, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told CNN he doesn’t “think there’s systemic racism” in law enforcement in the country. “There’s a few bad apples that are giving law enforcement a terrible name,” he added. When asked if Trump shares O’Brien’s view, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at a press briefing on June 1 that Trump “fundamentally rejects” the idea that the actions of Chauvin and the other Minneapolis officers at the scene are representative of the police force as a whole.

Over the past three years, Trump’s Administration has loosened the reins on local police departments, rolling back many of the major police reform measures that Obama championed to improve police accountability. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s first attorney general and a criminal justice hardliner, ended an Obama-era restriction on transferring military equipment to police, which was put in place after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., when police arrived at protests in armored vehicles and military-grade gear. Sessions then restored what is known as the 1033 Program, allowing the Pentagon to resume sending surplus military gear including armored vehicles, weapons and riot gear to state and local police forces.

Sessions also reviewed the consent decrees the Obama Administration had formed with more than a dozen police forces accused of abuses around the country, and fought to withdraw from agreements in Baltimore and Chicago. Sessions then made consent decrees — court-ordered agreements to reform local police departments accused of abuses and civil-rights violations— more difficult to obtain going forward, issuing new rules that raised the bar for when they can be used. Those new processes, which are still in place, require a higher level of sign-off within the Department for the agreements to go into effect and also put a sunset date on the deals, instead of allowing them to remain in place indefinitely until improvements are made, as they did under Obama, among other measures.

William Barr’s tenure as Trump’s second attorney general, which began in 2019 after the President fired Sessions, has been defined more by the fallout of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation than by national criminal justice reforms. But he is of a similar mindset to Sessions on police reform in many ways. “If communities don’t give [police] that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need,” Barr warned in a speech in December. Earlier this year, Barr convened a national commission to study issues in law enforcement, but all of its members come from law enforcement, which critics say ignores important civil rights and civil liberties perspectives.

When asked on June 1 what the Trump Administration is doing to work on the issue of police violence, McEnany said it was “an important question, for sure,” but the only specifics she mentioned were the civil rights investigations into the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed while out jogging in February. “He recognizes injustices where they are,” McEnany said of Trump.

Obama himself has said that most police and criminal justice reforms must ultimately be made at the state and local levels. But while his administration worked to address what it could at the federal level, says, Bennett of the ACLU, “this Administration has decided that it needs to offer another narrative.” That narrative is “pro blue lives,” she says, and “seeks to dismantle any of the progress that was made previously at the federal level with respect to local and state police accountability.”

‘Put the handcuffs on the criminals’

That pro-blue view has won Trump support from plenty of cops — including in Minneapolis. In October, Minneapolis Police Union president Bob Kroll came to a Trump rally wearing a “Cops for Trump” shirt. “The Obama Administration and the handcuffing and oppression of police was despicable,” Kroll said onstage. “The first thing President Trump did when he took office was turn that around… letting the cops do their job, put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of us.”

Long before Floyd was killed, the MPD was aware its practices were dangerous and often led to tragic outcomes. The Justice Department’s Community Relations Service oversaw a federal mediation process between the police department and community leaders in 2003, which resulted in signing a “memorandum of agreement” laying out several corrective actions. According to a copy of the document reviewed by TIME, it noted that the “MPD agrees that a choke hold constitutes deadly force. MPD will maintain its policy that prohibits the use of the choke hold except in circumstances in which the use of deadly force is authorized which is essentially life and death situations.”

While other metropolitan police departments across the country have since restricted the controversial practice of neck restraints for suspects, it was that very maneuver that killed Floyd 17 years later. Police officers and use-of-force experts say the MPD stands out for the permissive language of its use-of-force guidance, which notes it can be used “on a subject who is exhibiting active aggression” or “active resistance.” That guidance has not been updated since 2012, according to the MPD website. Since 2015, MPD officers have rendered people unconscious with neck restraints at least 44 times, according to an analysis of police records by NBC News.

Accountability measures within the police force have also been notoriously difficult to implement. Since joining the force in 2001, Chauvin had 17 conduct complaints filed against him, all but two of which were “closed with no discipline,” according to city records. Another of the officers who was present at the scene when Floyd was killed, Tou Thao, had at least six complaints filed against him, none of which resulted in discipline. Their cases are not uncommon in the department. A 2015 report by the U.S. Justice Department found that only 21% of conduct complaints in the MPD were ever even investigated, with almost half dismissed outright and the rest resulting in “coaching,” a program which allows officers to receive a refresher on department policy instead of a suspension. The report said the program was full of “inconsistencies and confusion.”

Several attempts to establish an effective police review board also seem to have failed. The Civilian Police Review Authority, a body created by the city council in 1990, was shuttered in 2012 after it “fell apart amid complaints from its members that their rulings on police misconduct cases were routinely ignored by the police chief,” according to media reports at the time. It was replaced by the Office of Police Conduct Review, which has also been accused of ignoring most complaints filed. According to city records, only 13 out of nearly 1,200 complaints processed between October 2012 and September 2015 resulted in disciplinary measures. Most times, the police officer in question was just sent for “coaching.”

“The statistics on discipline speak for themselves,” Dave Bicking, a board member of Communities United Against Police Brutality, a Twin Cities advocacy group, wrote in an email to the Minneapolis City Council in April 2018. “From complaints by the public, the harshest discipline we are aware of is a 40-hour suspension. Is this level of accountability acceptable to you?” In the data he attached showing complaints against officers without discipline, Chauvin’s name appeared eight times.

Other parts of Minnesota’s state government have also shown little appetite for supporting reform. The state has one of the lowest police license revocation rates in the country: A 2017 investigation by the Star Tribune found that over the past two decades, several hundred officers across the state had been convicted of serious crimes, such as assault, without ever facing discipline by the state licensing body. The state legislature, too, has resisted police reforms. In February, a working group led by State Attorney General Keith Ellison released 28 recommendations including new training standards and independent investigations into the use of deadly force in the MPD. But many require the approval of the state legislature, which has failed to pass even one of more than a dozen police reform bills proposed since 2015.

“After Castile, we were hopeful the legislature would take some action to address these broad, systemic issues,” Nelson says. “But then things calm down. There’s not enough political will to hold the police accountable. It’s very difficult to change the direction of a ship.”

With nationwide protests extending into a second week, it’s clear that many Americans still want to try. They hope the tragedy of Floyd’s death may finally lead to long overdue reforms in Minneapolis and around the country— even in systems that so far have not been receptive to significant change. “This is an instance where there’s a strong focus on the need to hold Officer Chauvin and the other three officers accountable for the terrible acts, for killing Mr. Floyd,” says Gupta. But, she adds, there’s “also the need for a real reckoning.”

— With additional reporting by Jasmine Aguilera

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com and Tessa Berenson at tessa.Rogers@time.com