As video footage of George Floyd’s last moments circulated this week, many watched in shock and revulsion. The 46-year old black man died Monday, pleading for air, as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest.
But few could share the horrible familiarity the clip would evince for Valerie Castile, who four years ago watched similar footage: her son, Philando, dying after a police officer shot him during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb. Her son’s killing added fuel to the national conversation about how police use force against people of color, and prompted promises from civic leaders across Minnesota to reform policing.
So why, she asked, is she now watching another video of a black man in her city dying at the hands of the police?
“I’m sick over it and literally heartbroken,” Castile said of Floyd’s death. “We still have that big question: Why? Why does this keep happening and why no one is being held accountable?”
To answer that, The Marshall Project analyzed police reform efforts in the city and throughout Minnesota to understand why change has been so slow across the predominantly white state. Police accountability experts, court documents, stalled state legislation and a 2015 report by the U.S. Justice Department about policing in Minneapolis all point to a clear pattern: Even as officials have made some changes, law enforcement agencies have lacked either the authority or the will to discipline and remove bad officers from patrol. They have also failed to set clear criteria on the use of force and de-escalation.
The Minneapolis Police Department failed to fully adopt changes recommended by federal officials to weed out bad cops, local critics said. At least two of the officers involved in Floyd’s fatal encounter, including the officer who knelt on his neck, had complaints filed against them in the past. At the same time, the department continued to use choke holds, allowing the controversial practice in some circumstances—even as an option for lethal force.
“All these reforms really come down to ‘What do you really consider reasonable force?” Castile said.
Of the officer who pinned Floyd, she asked, “What was reasonable about how long he held 200 pounds of pressure on that man’s neck?”
In Minneapolis, where U.S. Census data shows black people make up one-fifth of the population, the need to reform the police department was clear in 2012, when newly appointed Police Chief Janeé Harteau vowed to overhaul the force.
Harteau, the city’s first top cop who was a woman and also openly gay, billed herself as a progressive reformer. Within months, she invited the U.S. Justice Department to review the police force to help it improve accountability and community trust.
The feds released their “diagnostic analysis” in 2015, describing the city’s “ineffective” system for tracking problematic cops. The report recommended that the police department automate its system for flagging poorly behaved officers and alerting supervisors when a cop has started to rack up too many complaints. The document also suggested that the police department revamp an alternative-to-discipline “coaching” program.
The program lets police officials opt to send a cop to a coaching session to brush up on a specific department policy after a complaint is filed, in place of suspension or other discipline. The federal report, however, said the coaching process was filled with “inconsistencies and confusion.”
Harteau agreed to update the intervention system. She also narrowed the circumstances in which Minneapolis officers were authorized to kill. In 2016, the department rewrote its use of force policy with a focus on the “sanctity of life.” The new rules also required officers to intervene when a fellow cop became abusive.
Those steps, and inviting the federal review in the first place, won praise from some national advocates of policing reform. But some important things were left undone: the department did not fully revise its policy on neck restraints, a police technique that was already under fire across the nation for other lethal incidents. Minneapolis officers can still choke someone unconscious if the person is “exhibiting active resistance,” according to the department’s policy. Lethal choke holds are also deemed acceptable when deadly force is legally justified. Neither Harteau nor the department responded to requests for comment.
Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, also didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Kroll, who is white, was once named in a racial discrimination lawsuit against the police department brought on by a group of black cops, including an officer who is now the current police chief. The 2007 suit alleged that Kroll openly wore a “white power” badge on his motorcycle jacket.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told reporters this week that the restraint used on Floyd was an unauthorized tactic and should never have been used. He also called on local prosecutors to file criminal charges against Derek Chauvin, the officer recorded kneeling on Floyd’s neck.
Teresa Nelson, Legal Director of the ACLU of Minnesota, said that the actions of the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck violated the department’s policy allowing neck restraints because it resulted in a death when lethal force was not justified.
Floyd’s final moments, pleading that he couldn’t breathe while Chauvin knelt on his throat, violate the department’s “sanctity of life” policy, she said. And the cops who stood by and watched without intervening also broke department rules.
“They completely violated this policy, but the policy does allow someone to be rendered unconscious, which I think is problematic,” Nelson said. “I hope real reforms come out of this.”
Nelson added that the revised use-of-force policy explains why the department was able to fire all four arresting officers in Floyd’s case within 24 hours of his death, speed that has been rare in previous police-brutality cases.
The policies on the use of neck restraints are not the only area in which reforms felt short in Minneapolis police, advocates said. They also point to the process supposed to identify “problem behaviors” in officers. It’s unclear if the department ever followed through with the federal recommendations on how to automate the system.
“They never got back to the public. It is frustrating,” said Chuck Turchick, a police accountability advocate who was on the committee formed to help the city roll out the federal reforms. “It was a joke.”
The police department wouldn’t comment on whether that early-warning system ever flagged Officer Chauvin, or any of the other three officers involved in Floyd’s arrest. But records show Chauvin and one of the other officers had complaints filed against them.
Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the department, racked up a dozen complaints from the public, none of which led to discipline, city records show. Those records do not show the nature or severity of the complaints. Likewise, city coaching records aren’t public, so it’s unclear if Chauvin was sent to any of the policy training sessions as an alternative to discipline.
Past news stories show that Chauvin was involved in at least three cases in which a police officer shot a civilian during a six-year period. He was placed on paid leave in 2006 after being present, but not being the shooter, during a fatal confrontation with a man armed with a knife. In 2008, Chauvin shot a 21-year-old who was suspected of hitting a woman. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, police said the man in that incident tried to grab either Chauvin’s or his partner’s gun, prompting Chauvin to open fire. And in 2011, Chauvin was at the scene when a colleague shot a suspected gunman, who witnesses said had his hands up and was trying to surrender, according to news accounts.
Chauvin’s attorney did not return a call seeking comment.
Tou Thao, another of the officers involved in Floyd’s encounter, has had at least six complaints filed against him, city records show. Five resulted in no discipline and one is still under investigation. And in 2017, the city paid a $25,000 settlement to Lamar Ferguson, who said Thao knocked out his teeth during an arrest, court records showed. Thao had approached Ferguson, who was walking with his pregnant girlfriend, to ask about the whereabouts of people believed to be Ferguson’s relatives, according to the court file. The confrontation quickly escalated.
Thao’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
The reputation of the Minneapolis’ police department as a leader in police reforms came to an end well before Floyd’s death. In July 2017, Officer Mohamed Noor fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a yoga teacher from Australia who had called 9-1-1 to report a possible sexual assault near her home. Harteau resigned days later.
Noor, a Somali-American, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for shooting Damond, a white woman. The city of Minneapolis paid a $20 million settlement to Damond’s family and lawyers. Because Noor didn't record his encounter with Damond on his body camera, the police department updated its policy and now requires cops to activate their body cameras while traveling to a call. Officials said that the officers involved in the Floyd case all had their cameras turned on.
State Attorney General Keith Ellison said he is well aware the state has long-standing policing challenges. “The reforms thus far have been halting, inadequate, and just put it on the shelf until we get to the next tragedy,” he said. “Without tragedies to keep propelling it, it gets ignored after a while.”
Ellison said that it will take cultural and political change to fix the relationship between police and the communities in Minnesota, but that policy fixes can help. The COVID-19 pandemic stalled the progress of a working group on “police-involved deadly force encounters,” which Ellison leads alongside the state’s public safety commissioner. In February, the group released 28 recommendations including new training standards and independent investigations into the use of deadly force.
But many of the suggested changes require the state legislature’s approval. If the recent past is any guide, they are unlikely to gain much traction. Since 2015, elected leaders have proposed more than a dozen police reform bills, but failed to pass or substantially advance any of them. Several of the failed bills would have overhauled statewide standards for when cops can use force, and set up independent investigations for fatal incidents. Another would have funded training on racial bias and de-escalation for officers in the state’s larger departments.
Some of Ellison’s proposals fall under the guidance of the state’s Peace Officers Standards and Training Board, or POST, which oversees police licenses for all law enforcement across Minnesota. Those suggestions would beef up the board’s power to suspend or revoke a cop’s license. But at present, Ellison said, the agency doesn’t have enough power to enforce standards and the legislature has not adopted a proposal to give it that power.
“Currently POST is not a force for change,” Ellison said. “It’s more of just a passthrough.”
Ellison, who was outspoken on policing issues as a six-term U.S. Congressman, said if he was dissatisfied with county prosecutor Mike Freeman’s handling of the Floyd case, he could ask the governor to hand the case to the Attorney General’s office, where Ellison could oversee the prosecution directly.
Freeman said late Thursday in a press conference that while “no person should do” what officer Chauvin did, “there’s other evidence that does not support a criminal charge,” and that he wasn’t going to “rush to justice.”
It remained unclear whether charges against the officers would stop violent protests that on Thursday entered their third day and prompted the governor to activate the National Guard.
And a criminal prosecution might not bring peace to Floyd’s family. After Castile’s death in 2016, officer Jeronimo Yanez was charged in the killing, but a jury found him not guilty of all charges.
Asked what he would tell people like Castile, who are frustrated and feel that little or nothing has changed, Ellison replied: “I only got one thing for Valerie in that regard. We have to try. I’m not going to tell her something has changed. I’m going to tell her we’re going to try to change it.”