The Chauvin Case:
A Lifting of the Veil or Only a Peek Behind the Curtain?
Thanks to a 17-year-old’s cellphone video, worldwide protests, and a televised criminal trial, the Derek Chauvin trial exposed misconduct and malfeasance of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). The world was shocked, but not the Robins Kaplan Civil Rights Group; they have seen this all before.1
SIMILARITIES IN MPD MISCONDUCT CASES
Robins Kaplan attorneys Bob Bennett, Andy Noel, and Katie Bennett lead the firm’s Civil Rights Group and have many years of experience handling civil rights and police misconduct cases on behalf of victims. They cite grim similarities in these cases:
- Inadequate or inappropriate officer selection and training, leading to distrustful and overly reactive officers
- The “blue wall of silence” from fellow officers
- Whitewashed official statements and police reports
- Leadership’s failure to address historic systemic failures and consistently discipline officers
The group reflected recently on their experience and whether the Chauvin murder conviction would spur needed change.
POOR TRAINING LEADS TO AN ‘US V. THEM’ MENTALITY, NEEDLESSLY INJECTING DRAMA INTO CALLS AND CREATING TRAUMA WITHOUT CONSEQUENCES
In 2017, Bob, Andy, and Katie pursued a civil rights case against MPD Officer Mohamed Noor, who shot and killed Justine Ruszczyk, an unarmed, innocent 911 caller.2 The trial painted a picture of an inadequately selected and trained officer, spooked by a noise while patrolling a low-crime area. The Robins Kaplan team recognizes this breed of MPD officers, those worried more for their own safety than public safety. These officers often have an “us v. them” mentality, even with non-suspects. Case in point: The group is currently pursuing recovery for two of the many people injured by Minneapolis police in the days following the George Floyd murder.
The Robins Kaplan attorneys point out that the problem isn’t just the training but also the trainer. In 2007, the group uncovered both issues while obtaining $4.5 million for an undercover officer shot multiple times by his fellow officer.3 The undercover officer explained that, often, jaded MPD officers serve as field trainers indoctrinating rookie cops with bad habits and the sanctity of the “blue wall of silence.” The group also saw the blue wall at work in the Noor case. Officers at the scene turned off their body cameras, and 35 other MPD officers refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
LEADERSHIP’S LACK OF TRANSPARENCY AND ACTION
MPD leadership has not adequately addressed known issues. The very same restraint technique that killed George Floyd — kneeling on the neck and upper back of a subdued suspect – killed David Smith 10 years ago. In negotiating the Smith civil rights settlement, the Robins Kaplan team included a provision that the MPD would provide additional training on appropriate restraint. In an earlier incident, in 2017, Chauvin’s beating, choking and prolonged kneeling on another Civil Rights Group client, then 14-year-old John Pope, was done with impunity.
Chauvin had a long history of use-of-force complaints, several of which were likely well-founded. In fact, on May 6 of this year, Chauvin was indicted by a federal grand jury on two counts of federal criminal civil rights violations with regard to his 2017 conduct toward Pope. (See United States of America v. Derek Michael Chauvin, File Number CR 21-109 WMW/HB). Yet, inexplicably, the MPD never removed Chauvin, and he remained on the force to murder George Floyd and ignite the city.
Although MPD leadership testified against Chauvin, their actions belied their words. Leadership failed to address known problems and be candid with the public when they recurred. After the Floyd murder, the MPD’s Director of Public Information issued a statement that “Officers … noted he (Floyd) appeared to be suffering medical distress … called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”4 A gross understatement of what transpired.
The willingness of the city and police union to ignore problem officers only enables such activity and illuminates leadership’s shortcomings.
LOOKING AHEAD BY LOOKING BACK
Perhaps Chauvin’s murder conviction is evidence of progress. If so, that progress is painfully slow. Bob Bennett has handled MPD misconduct cases for 40 years. The team points to a case nearly 20 years ago, where a federal jury found “a custom of deliberate indifference to complaints about excessive force in the department.”5
A quarter century later, at the Noor sentencing, the judge underscored the jury’s primary concern: “Will there be changes? Change is needed.” Clearly the Noor jurors hoped their conviction would send the requisite message, as did the Robins team after obtaining a $20 million award for the victim’s family. Yet, here we are two years later. This time, Minneapolis has agreed to pay $27 million to the family of George Floyd. What will it take to change?
In June, Minneapolis promised improvement in field officer training, after a damning report revealed a culture of aggressive policing.6 Enough?
After the Chauvin verdict the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into the MPD’s use of force. Will that bring change?
Those in a position to make lasting change — MPD leadership and politicians — have engaged in debate, but talk is cheap. Without action from both, the lifting of the veil at the MPD will be reduced to a mere peek behind the curtain.
3 https://www.startribune.com/five-years-after-shooting-cop-he-still-feels-in-the-line-of-fire/16436361/; https://www.mprnews.org/story/2010/06/07/ngo-suicide
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