Floyd case sheds light on the power of police unions to thwart justice


In the five days since Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer seen kneeling on the neck of a handcuffed black man, was charged in the death of George Floyd — charges that were upgraded Wednesday to second-degree murder — protests sparked by the incident have continued around the country.

In a now-viral video, Chauvin is seen pinning the prone, handcuffed Floyd to the ground for nearly nine minutes, as three other officers stand by. The three were also charged on Wednesday with aiding and abetting murder. All four were fired the day after the incident, which took place on Memorial Day near a corner store where police had reportedly been responding to a complaint about a counterfeit bill.

Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington called the department’s swift action “extraordinary.”

“We have never charged a case in that time frame,” he said during a press conference last week.

In a statement, Floyd’s family and attorney Ben Crump called the newest charges, announced by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, “a significant step forward on the road to justice.”

But Harrington’s comment speaks volumes about the way police brutality, and particularly killings of unarmed black men and women, has traditionally been handled, in Minneapolis and other cities. Floyd’s last words apart from calling for his mother — “I can’t breathe” — were the same ones gasped out in 2014 by Eric Garner, another unarmed, middle-aged black man, who was grabbed from behind in a chokehold by a New York City police officer and wrestled to the ground, where he died. Garner’s death had also been captured on video, and “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.

And yet, time and again, victims’ families and the many others who’ve come out to mourn and protest their deaths, have watched as officers involved in such incidents remain on the job and escape criminal prosecution for months or years.

Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City officer who had used the chokehold on Garner, remained employed by the NYPD for five years after the video of his death sparked nationwide protests. Local prosecutors and the Justice Department declined to charge him. He was tried by the NYPD and fired for violating the department’s ban on chokeholds.

As many commentators observed, a civilian who was filmed doing what Chauvin or Pantaleo were seen doing would have likely been arrested on the spot. Why not them?

A woman burns sage and offers prayers as she pays her respects at a makeshift memorial in honor of George Floyd, on June 3, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Chandon Khanna/ AFP via Getty Images)
A woman burns sage and offers prayers on Wednesday as she pays her respects at a makeshift memorial in honor of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Chandon Khanna/ AFP via Getty Images)

The answer has to do with the latitude most jurisdictions have traditionally given their law enforcement officers — who sometimes need to make split-second decisions in dangerous situations involving potentially violent or unstable suspects — and the political and legal clout of police departments and police unions in many big cities. It was no accident that one of the chants by demonstrators in New York City over the weekend was “F*** the PBA!” — the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the largest municipal police union in the country.

The Minneapolis Police Department has a troubled history of fatal encounters with civilians, something Janeé Harteau, who was sworn in as the department’s first female and gay police chief in 2012, tried to change. She told Yahoo News that she faced numerous roadblocks, including the police officer’s union and, in particular, its president, Lt. Bob Kroll, who, she said, “fought me at every turn.”

“I was not supported in making the change to try and weed out the bad cops,” said Harteau.

In an interview with the New York Times podcast “The Daily” that aired Wednesday, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey called the police union “the elephant in the room with regard to police reform.” He said that the contract associated with the union, as well as an opaque arbitration process, have created a system “where we have difficulty both disciplining and terminating officers who have done wrong,” actions that he argued are necessary for a “full-on culture shift” at the department.

Chauvin, Harteau said, is a perfect example of this. In the wake of Floyd’s death, police records and old news reports have revealed that over the course of nearly 20 years on the job, Chauvin reportedly shot and wounded a suspect, was involved in the fatal shooting of another, was named in a police brutality lawsuit and had been the subject of at least 17 misconduct complaints, none of which interfered with his career. Tou Thao, one of the other officers seen alongside Chauvin in the video, reportedly had six internal affairs complaints filed against him, one of which was still open at the time of Floyd’s deadly arrest. The rest had all been closed without discipline.

When she took over as chief, Harteau requested a review by the Department of Justice of the Minneapolis Police Department’s officer conduct and oversight process which found, among other things, that the department had an “ineffective” system for tracking and flagging officers who’ve received significant numbers of complaints.

Then-Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau talked to people attending a closed door meeting with community leaders on how to improve community relations with the police department on August 7, 2013. (Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
Then-Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau in 2013. (Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

“Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department have had a long history of really painful incidents of killings of unarmed civilians, [and] of race relations broken,” said Vanita Gupta, who served as head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President Obama. “That’s why you’re seeing the kind of level of frustration pouring out into the streets every night right now.”

Under the Obama administration, the civil rights division conducted investigations into “patterns and practices” of unconstitutional and abusive conduct at several police departments around the country, including many that had been involved in high profile cases of police violence, such as Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Chicago. Those three were among 14 total police departments that entered into consent decrees, agreements with the Justice Department to implement court-mandated reforms, as a result of these civil rights investigations.

Gupta told Yahoo News that under her leadership, the civil rights division would’ve “strongly considered” opening a “pattern and practice” probe of the Minneapolis Police Department, which, she said, would have examined everything from “use of force problems to training, accountability, supervision, the kinds of systemic issues that infect a culture of policing.”

However, the Obama administration’s focus on reforming problematic police departments was pretty much upended when Donald Trump took office and installed Jeff Sessions, an outspoken opponent of police oversight, as his first attorney general. Right before his ouster from the DOJ in 2018, Sessions issued a last-minute memo drastically curtailing the department’s ability to use consent decrees to overhaul police departments and other law enforcement agencies accused of civil rights violations and other abuses.

Harteau was ultimately forced to resign in 2017 after a woman who’d called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her house was shot and killed by the Minneapolis police officer responding to the call. (The officer in that case, Mohamed Noor, who is Somali-American, was convicted last year on charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter, and was sentenced to an unusually lengthy 12 and a half years in prison.)

However, before leaving the department Harteau sought to make a number of changes recommended by the DOJ in its review, including revising the department’s use of force policy in 2016 to emphasize “sanctity of life” and limit the circumstances in which officers are permitted to use deadly force.

Though the updated policy still permits the controversial use of neck restraints, and even potentially lethal choke holds in certain situations, MPD’s rules regarding force state that “neck restraints shall not be used against subjects who are passively resisting.” The policy also requires other officers on the scene to intervene “when force is being inappropriately applied or is no longer required.”

Thanks to the video footage of Floyd’s arrest, Harteau’s use-of-force policy is what made it possible for the department to fire all four officers involved in the incident so quickly.

“We made some progress, but it clearly wasn’t enough because this shouldn’t happen,”Harteau told Yahoo News in an interview last week. “I’m just so angry, I feel like my life’s work just went up in smoke.”

Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis made his support for Trump clear at a rally at the Target Center in Minneapolis on October 10, 2019. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, speaks at a rally for President Trump at the Target Center in Minneapolis in October 2019. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Kroll, who joined the force in 1989, has been a controversial figure since before he was first elected in 2015 as president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, the union that represents the city’s 800-plus officers. Prior to 2015, Kroll himself had reportedly faced 20 internal affairs complaints, three of which resulted in discipline including one that prompted a demotion. In 2007, Kroll was named in a racial discrimination lawsuit brought against the department by a group of black officers, including Medaria Arradondo, the current police chief. Among examples listed in the lawsuit of the department’s alleged tolerance for “racially discriminatory conduct by white officers,” are comments Kroll reportedly made calling then-U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison a terrorist. Ellison, who is now the state’s attorney general, is black and was the first Muslim elected to Congress. The lawsuit also accused Kroll of wearing “a motorcycle jacket with a ‘White Power’ badge sewn onto it.”

As president of the union, Kroll has built a reputation as an unwavering defender of police autonomy, and a critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, which he also referred to as a “terrorist organization.” Speaking onstage at a Trump rally in Minneapolis last year, Kroll praised the president for reversing course on the Obama administration’s “despicable” approach to police oversight. Trump, he said, “decided to start letting cops do their job, put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of [on] us.” At the rally, Kroll wore a red “Cops for Trump” T-shirt that, per the local CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, the union had recently begun selling in protest of a new city policy prohibiting officers from supporting political candidates while in uniform.

In another act of defiance against the Democratic mayor, Kroll announced in April of last year that the police union would offer officers free “warrior training,” an aggressive style of policing that emphasizes establishing control by domination, a practice Frey had ended.

The challenges presented by powerful police unions are not specific to Minneapolis.

Mark Merin is a civil rights attorney based in Sacramento, Calif., who has spent much of his career suing police departments and cities over police violence and other civil rights abuses. He said that the power of police unions stems from the fact that they “are very effective in terms of political activity.”

“The union is critical to the success of the sheriff or police chief,” Merin said. “If they were to oppose a police chief publicly, they can pretty much ensure that chief will not be reelected or reappointed.

“It’s rare that a police chief or sheriff will do anything that the union opposes,” Merin continued. A similar dynamic exists between unions and district attorneys who, he said, are often “dissuaded from doing anything contrary to the police union.”

Besides political concerns, Merin added that “district attorneys rely on police to investigate and testify in criminal actions.”

All of this, combined with opaque arbitration processes and special protections that most states have for officers who’ve been accused of misconduct, “it’s very difficult to get an officer prosecuted” or even fired.

The actions taken so far in the Floyd case are the exception, not the rule, he said, and only because of the incontrovertible evidence provided by the video tape. “If you don’t have that,” he said, “what you have instead is a coterie of lying officers.”

A NYPD police officer sprays protesters as they clash during a march against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on May 30, 2020. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
An NYPD officer sprays protesters in Brooklyn as they clash during a march on Saturday. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

While the Floyd case may seem cut and dried to much of the general public, not everyone sees it that way.

“The police generally view this totally differently than the public,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who has trained police worldwide, said that while he is in no way excusing Chauvin’s behavior, it is important to understand the effect of broader changes in society on police work.

“There’s a totally irreconcilable difference in the way the police look at their job and the way the public looks at its job, and its gotten more pronounced than ever,” he said, arguing that the real issue is not “whether or not the union should have the power it has,” but the fact that “the ordinary police job is to use force on people, to use coercion on people, to get them to comply.”

“There’s no such thing as no-risk custodial policing,” he said.

O’Donnell said police departments across the country, including Minneapolis’s, are struggling to recruit new officers, as young people have not only become less interested in law enforcement as a career but, increasingly, are opposed to policing in general.

“There’s a total aversion now to police using force on anybody,” he said.

Kroll has pledged “full support to the involved officers” in the Floyd case, and in an initial statement released by the union last week, urged the public to “remain calm and let the investigation be completed in full.”

“Now is not the time to rush to judgment and immediately condemn our officers,” the union said in a statement last week.

Harteau, who now does consulting and public speaking, doesn’t think a “rush to judgment” about Floyd’s case is the danger right now. She regards the incident as an opportunity for Kroll to send a message to the union’s rank-and-file members that such blatant acts of misconduct will not be condoned, an opportunity he hasn’t taken. “I’ve never had a case that was so clear,” she said. “This is almost too easy. If you’re not impacted by this, you’re not a human being.”

Additional reporting by Suzanne Smalley.


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