From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”
Today: The Minneapolis police officer whose tactics led to George Floyd’s death had a long record of complaints of misconduct. My colleague, Shaila Dewan, on why he was still patrolling the streets.
It’s Tuesday, June 2.
Shaila, you have been covering the criminal justice system and the cops for a really long time. So what were you thinking as you watched the video of George Floyd’s death?
Well, at first, I didn’t actually watch the video. I read about it, and I have seen too many of those videos. And it just is too painful. I knew what I needed to know right then to do my job, which was immediately to find out more about the officers who were involved in the incident and what we knew about them, what we could tell about them.
So we wanted to look immediately to see their work histories and whether they had had problems in the past. I mean, sometimes it can be really, really difficult to find out the history of an officer, especially if you need to do it quickly. There is a lot of secrecy around police records. Sometimes they just only keep complaints for a certain amount of time, sometimes you can’t see complaints at all.
So we use a variety of sources of information from civil lawsuits — that’s often a really good way to see details about what happened. We look at news accounts. So we just try to pull it from wherever we can find. Often, it’s a patchwork.
But Minneapolis is actually unusual in the sense that they have a searchable database online. And pretty quickly they put out a list of the complaints for each officer involved in the case. So in the case of Officer Chauvin, who was the guy who had his knee on George Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes — he had at least 17 complaints against him in his 19-year history. But we can’t see what the complaints were about.
And we found that the vast majority of those resulted in no discipline. There were two letters of reprimand placed in his file. We could also see that he was the subject of a brutality complaint.
And we know that he was involved in three shootings over the course of his career. In one of those, the man said that Officer Chauvin came into his house, and the man did not have a gun. There was a domestic violence call. And he says that Chauvin burst through the bathroom door, started hitting him and then fired two shots in his abdomen.
He says that Chauvin basically shot him unprovoked. And Chauvin said that the guy was going for his gun.
So you’re saying that despite all these complaints, Chauvin was never suspended, he wasn’t docked pay, he wasn’t really punished at all. I guess, to the degree he was punished, it was some kind of wrist slapping.
That’s right. Like I said, there were two letters of reprimand placed in this file. And there’s an account of one verbal reprimand for using derogatory language in a demeaning tone.
And what about the other officers on the scene when George Floyd dies? What did you find out about them?
So the officer who Chauvin and arrived at the scene with, Tou Thoa, had six complaints against him on his list. And he also was the subject of a civil lawsuit that said he basically handcuffed a guy and then beat him up. And that resulted in a $25,000 settlement.
But what about repercussions for that officer as a member of the Minneapolis police department?
Again, it doesn’t seem like that officer was ever disciplined by the police department.
I mean, how is that possible that neither of these officers face any real punishment, stayed on the force despite these complaints, and stayed in the kind of line of work where they would respond to a street incident like the one involving George Floyd?
Well, it’s not just possible. It’s notoriously common in this country. Our systems are basically set up to protect police officers from repercussions for their actions. That’s been noted over and over again. And it’s even been bitterly complained about by police chiefs who come in wanting to make changes and wanting to reform their departments and clean them up, and even they are sometimes prevented from doing that by the systems that are in place.
What do you mean?
Well, Minneapolis is actually a perfect example of this. They’ve had two police chiefs who were heralded as reformers. The current chief in fact, sued the department for what he said were racist hiring practices before he became chief. And when I read that he had fired these four officers almost immediately, my first thought was, I don’t know if that’s going to stick. He may be forced to rehire those guys because of all the protections that officers have.
I mean, so what exactly is happening here? I mean, what is getting in the way of these police chiefs running their departments the way that they want to, reforming them if they want to, and disciplining cops who cross the line?
So many things. There are so many things that work together to put these obstacles in place. They’re just kind of enshrined parts of the job. And it can be sort of helpful to break them out into buckets.
So there are five main reasons why it’s so hard to hold the police accountable for their actions. The first one is that the police are often policing themselves. Departments have internal affairs divisions that are part of the department usually. And those officers take complaints and investigate them, and come back and say what they think happened and what they think the consequences should be. And they tend to be charitable towards their own.
And what’s an example of this?
Well, for example, in Minneapolis in 2010, it was almost like a precursor of the Floyd case, where a man named David Cornelius Smith was held down by two officers. One of them had a knee on his neck for four minutes. He ended up dying. And the officers, after an internal affairs investigation, were never disciplined. In fact, the police chief at that time praised them for handling a tough situation.
OK, so what’s the second system that tends to block the disciplining of cops?
The second system this is really interesting civil service protection. Basically, public employees are allowed to appeal firings or other discipline to an independent body. And a lot of times with cops, they are given a lesser punishment when they appeal. Or if they’ve been fired, they’re reinstated. And in the Minneapolis area, The Pioneer Press did an analysis of this. And they found that the Minnesota board that deals with these cases reinstated law enforcement officers 46 percent of the time after they were fired.
So half the time that a cop was somehow fired for misconduct, this system puts them back in their jobs, basically overrules the punishment?
That’s right. And one interesting thing is that — sometimes the board would say there wasn’t enough evidence. But sometimes they would say, you know, you can’t punish this officer this way because there are prior examples of someone doing the same thing, and they didn’t get this severe of a punishment. So what that means is if you have a reformer coming in who wants to clean up, who wants to stop being lenient and wants to get tough on officer discipline, they’re going to be hamstrung by what was done in the past. So if somebody does something completely unacceptable in their eyes and they fire them, someone can come along and say oh, other officers that have kicked people were only given a suspension. So you can’t fire this guy.
So arbitration relies on a kind of precedent system, and the precedent has been not to punish these cops too severely. So it’s like a self-reinforcing cycle in which no person involved in arbitration is likely to break out of that system too far.
OK, what is the third bucket here?
That’s the concept of civilian review. And I hate the use of the word civilian, because it implies that the police are not civilians, which they are. But it’s this idea that non-police officers should be able to review the actions of police and complaints against the police and determine whether the police are meeting community standards for behavior.
They might be able to watch the body camera footage. They might be able to call in witnesses. And then typically they would make a recommendation. And sometimes the police department can just ignore the recommendation of the civilian review board. They’re a lot of times non-binding.
So they’ve kind of, over time, been seen as toothless. And Minneapolis is actually a perfect example of the kind of push and pull over how are we supposed to police the cops. They’ve had a civilian review board and then dismantled it, and had it again and dismantled it. And then finally a few years ago, they just did away with it altogether and replaced it with a police conduct review panel.
And the city maintains that this panel works much better. It is made up of appointed civilians and police together. Critics say that complaints from the public are still largely disregarded.
It’s important to keep in mind, of course, that any member of the public can lodge a complaint for any reason, and often, they are very unhappy when they have an interaction with the police. So it’s not uncommon to find many civilian complaints unfounded. But the percentage that this one organization cited to me that keeps track of such things is that out of 2,600 complaints that originated with the public, only 12 resulted in discipline. And the city has since come back to dispute that figure, but it is certainly a very low percentage of complaints that result in discipline.
Suggesting that this panel frequently does not punish cops based on public complaints?
We’ll be right back.
So the fourth reason why it’s hard to hold police accountable is the police unions. And these are the organizations that represent the rank-and-file members. It’s their job, basically, to protect police jobs. So they’re often led by kind of old-school, law-and-order individuals who are often the biggest opponent of reform-minded chiefs who come in. That is often a real source of clashing and tension.
And is that the case in Minneapolis?
Minneapolis is actually a textbook example of this. The union president, Bob Kroll, is a very controversial figure. He himself has had 29 complaints against him as a police officer. He is a Trump aficionado who stood on stage with him and thanked him for letting cops do their jobs. He has been blamed by the previous police chief for blocking reforms, for being one of the biggest opponents to cleaning up the department. And he’s already saying that he’s going to fight to get the jobs back of the four officers that were involved in the Floyd killing. So that’s the guy who represents the rank-and-file Minneapolis police officers. So if you have somebody who’s just saying you’ve got to defend officers at all costs sort of no matter what they do, that’s a banner that some cops could choose to walk under.
So Shaila, I mean, with all that in mind, how much power does any police chief in the country — I mean, even the most reform-minded variety of police chief — really have to try to discipline cops given the obstacles?
I think it is really hard, even as we’ve seen public attitudes shift dramatically, and the unions just have so much power in this equation.
OK. By my count, we are on system number five that keeps police from being disciplined.
That’s right, system number five is a big one. And that’s the difficulty of holding police criminally accountable for their actions. And that’s a lot due to a legal concept called reasonable fear. So even if you overcome prosecutor’s reluctance to charge police officers, and even if you overcome jury’s reluctance to convict officers, officers still have a lot of protection. And that’s built up on the idea that they have very difficult, dangerous jobs where they have to make split-second decisions. And you can’t really second guess them. So if an officer can make an argument that a reasonable officer would have been afraid for their life, or for the life of a fellow officer in that moment, then the jury is not supposed to convict them. And that’s a pretty big hurdle to overcome if what you think is that police need to be sent to prison. And that’s the system that we’ve set up for the courts.
And of course, Minneapolis has charged Officer Chauvin with murder. It sounds like you’re saying that if that charge is brought to a trial, that this concept of reasonable fear could be a major argument in his favor and could make it very hard to prosecute him.
I mean, there’s already a lot of talk about what a jury might do in this situation and how hard it will be to prove this case. Certainly, nobody thinks it’s going to be an easy case to prove.
Shaila, all these systems that we are discussing as potential impediments to disciplining cops, I have to think that all of them were put in place for a reason, and maybe even at first a good reason.
I mean, sure. There’s two sides to all of these stories. So of course, as an employee, you don’t want to be at the whim of an unreasonable boss. So you want the protection of being able to appeal. I think we can all understand how a union protects workers. And no one thinks that police officers have an easy job. But I think there’s something even deeper going on here, which is that these systems come out of a failure of trust — that police officers simply don’t trust, and maybe for good reason, that the public could possibly understand them or their choices or their jobs, or what they’re really facing. And so they can’t contemplate subjecting themselves to that kind of public scrutiny.
And so that belief kind of permeates all of this.
It permeates all of this.
You know, it’s interesting, almost by definition, whether you think that these systems are problems or you think that they offer necessary protections to cops, they feel quite entrenched. And they feel kind of immovable.
This is a system that, even an institution that wants to change itself, can’t overcome its architecture. And this is why you see the rage on the streets. Those are people who, I think, viscerally feel that architecture. And the only thing they can see to do is dismantle it. They don’t think that it’s about tweaking it or adjusting it. It’s about tearing it down.
Thank you, Shaila.
Thank you, Michael.
On Monday afternoon, the medical examiner’s office in Hennepin County, Minnesota released the results of a preliminary autopsy on George Floyd. The office classified his death as a homicide, saying that his heart stopped as police, including officer Chauvin, restrained him and compressed his neck.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today.
- archived recording ( president donald trump)
You have been dominated. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.
In a conference call with governors on Monday, President Trump lashed out at them for what he described as their inadequate response to the protests, demanding, quote, “retribution against the demonstrators for the unrest.”
- archived recording (president donald trump)
You have to arrest people, and you have to try people. And they have to go to jail for long periods of time. I saw what happened in Philadelphia.
A few hours later, in his first remarks from the White House since the protests began, Trump called the violent scenes unfolding across the country, quote, “acts of domestic terror,” and said he was prepared to step in if local officials failed to contain the demonstrations.
- archived recording (president donald trump)
If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.
Outside the White House on Monday night —
- archived recording
— police used tear gas and flash grenades to push back protesters who were peacefully demonstrating in Lafayette Park, so that the president could pose for photos at a church on the park’s edge that had been damaged during protests the night before. As of Monday night, at least 40 cities, including Washington and New York, have imposed curfews to try to discourage the protests.
That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.
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