Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks about a jury's verdict in the case against former Minneapolis Police Officer.
Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks about a jury's verdict in the case against former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, at the Department of Justice, in Washington, D.C., April 21, 2021.

The Justice Department has opened a civil investigation into the embattled police department in the Midwestern U.S. city of Minneapolis, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Wednesday, a day after a jury convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd.

Chauvin, who is white, was convicted on three counts in the murder of Floyd, a Black man who died after being pinned in the street beneath Chauvin’s knee for more than nine minutes.

The sweeping inquiry will examine whether the Minneapolis Police Department has engaged in a “pattern or practice” of unconstitutional policing, Garland said at the Justice Department. It will also look into the department’s use of force against protesters and whether its treatment of people with behavioral disabilities violates federal law.

"Building trust between community and law enforcement will take time and effort by all of us, but we undertake this task with determination and urgency, knowing that change cannot wait,” Garland said.

The announcement marks a shift in DOJ priorities under President Joe Biden and reflects his administration’s determination to use “pattern or practice” investigations to combat civil rights violations and other abuses in police departments. Such investigations were widely used during the Obama administration but the tactic was subsequently abandoned under former President Donald Trump.

Cooperation pledged

In a statement, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said he welcomed the investigation and that he and his department would "cooperate fully.”

“I look forward to sharing the great work done by our teams, day in and day out, with the Department of Justice and getting their feedback on how we can serve our communities even better,” Arradondo said.

The inquiry into the Minneapolis Police Department is separate from a Justice Department criminal investigation of Floyd’s death, Garland said. The criminal probe is ongoing but legal experts say it is unlikely to lead to charges against Chauvin now that he’s been convicted.

Chauvin was found guilty of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for causing Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020. Three other Minneapolis police officers present when Floyd died face charges of aiding and abetting. Their trial is slated to begin in August.

Garland’s announcement came after Biden vowed late Tuesday that his administration would continue to fight for policing reform and an end to systemic racism.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called on Congress to approve policing reform legislation in a bill named for Floyd.

Garland said the Justice Department would issue a public report if it uncovered unconstitutional or unlawful policing in Minneapolis. The investigation could take up to a year or more.

Consent decree

The report will likely be followed by a civil lawsuit against the Minneapolis Police Department and the City of Minneapolis and eventually a court-enforced agreement known as a consent decree, said Jason Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.

The Obama administration investigated 25 police departments, negotiating 14 consent decrees. None was done under the Trump administration.

In 2018, Jeff Sessions, Trump’s first attorney general, signed a memo that limited the use of consent decrees, saying the agreements had demoralized police departments. Garland rescinded the Sessions memo last week.

“The department,” Garland wrote in an April 16 memo to Justice Department officials, “will return to the traditional process that allows the heads of [DOJ] components to approve most settlement agreements, consent decrees and the use of monitors in cases involving state and local governmental entities.”

Whether consent decrees work remains controversial. Proponents believe they bring needed reform to police departments plagued by abuse.

“These tools are needed now more than ever to safeguard and enforce civil rights as the U.S. continues to grapple with the ramifications of ongoing police violence and misconduct,” Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement.

But pro-law enforcement groups say they’re costly and burdensome.

“There's no evidence that I'm aware of that they result in the desired outcome,” said Johnson, who as Baltimore’s then-deputy police commissioner was involved in the city’s consent decree negotiation with the Justice Department.