Protests and riots broke out across American cities this week to demand justice for George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, while three other officers watched. The four officers involved were fired after video of the officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck went public. But for days, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office maintained that it would wait for an investigation to conclude before deciding whether or not to prosecute. On Friday, after protesters burned down a police precinct and pressure mounted, Hennepin County Attorney Freeman announced he was charging Chauvin with third-degree murder and manslaughter. “I didn’t want to wait any longer to share the news that he’s in custody and charged with murder,” he said.
This was a rapid shift for the attorney, who less than 24 hours earlier had warned that he did not yet have the evidence he needed to indict Chauvin, and warned repeatedly that the investigation would take time. “We’re going to investigate [Floyd’s death] as expeditiously, as thoroughly and completely as justice demands,” Freeman said in a press conference Thursday. “Sometimes, that takes a little time and we ask people to be patient. We have to do this right.”
The statement raised eyebrows for good reason. The video clearly shows a homicide. Even if, somehow, investigators discovered Floyd had threatened the officers in some way before the cameras had started rolling, what could possibly justify kneeling on his neck until he died?
On Friday, reporters pressed Freeman, asking him what had changed between Thursday and Friday, and if public outcry had influenced his decision. He maintained simply that on Thursday, his office did not have all the information it needed, and today it did.
It may well be true that there was some key piece of evidence that clicked everything into place; Freeman would not specify what evidence he had been waiting for to bring charges. What’s more likely is that Freeman had unsuccessfully deployed a script used by many a city official facing anger over police brutality: Urge calm while promising a thorough investigation to get to the bottom of what exactly happened, and then take long enough to get to the bottom of it until public anger has, to some degree, dissipated.
The Minneapolis police force has a well-established record of using excessive force and killing people who pose no threat. Chauvin himself has been involved in multiple police shootings and has at least one other death under his belt, but this is his first indictment.
Freeman insisted this was the fastest his office has ever charged anyone. A reporter quickly called out that she had previously seen the attorney bring charges much more quickly than the four days this case took. He clarified that this was the fastest indictment of a police officer. “Normally, these cases can take nine months to a year,” he said.
So what, exactly, needed to be investigated before making an arrest in this case? As Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey noted, if a video surfaced showing a civilian committing such violence, they would be arrested immediately. The video was more than enough to establish probable cause for an arrest on its own. Another point of comparison is how quickly police arrested a black CNN reporter, Omar Jimenez, early Friday morning, surely knowing there was no case against him. (His press badge was visible, and he was live on camera.) The police are still arresting other people involved in the protests and booking them in jail, likely with much less evidence in hand and before conducting substantive investigations. Typically, the bulk of investigations continue, both by the prosecution and defense, after a charge has been brought.
It’s not that investigations never reveal new information. They are valuable and important. The Department of Justice investigation into Ferguson, Missouri, determined that the early, iconic narrative of Brown’s death—that officer Darren Wilson shot him while he had his hands up—was not true. There was no video of the shooting, and conflicting witness statements were one key reason why a grand jury declined to indict Wilson. That same investigation also detailed how the people of Ferguson and the surrounding region had been living under an unconstitutional extortion scheme that threatened nearly every resident with jail time if they did not pay any number of fines and fees.
But too often, the promise of investigation—particularly in cases like this, where video exists and eyewitnesses are plentiful—serves mostly to buy time until public outrage quiets down. Minneapolis protesters showed they’re not falling for that anymore.
They’re right to be skeptical. After police officers killed Jamar Clark in November 2015, Black Lives Matter demonstrators camped outside the 4th Precinct for 18 days and sustained regular protests well into January. Freeman took four months to investigate before announcing he was not charging the officers on March 30, 2016.
The investigation into the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 was among the most egregious examples of this tactic. Protests erupted after the release of video showing police officers driving up to the child as he played with a toy gun, exiting their car, and, within seconds, opening fire on him. The officers then tackled and handcuffed his 14-year-old sister rather than try to administer first aid to Rice. Cleveland prosecutor Timothy McGinty handed the decision to indict the officers to a grand jury, and the county sheriff took on the investigation, declining to set a deadline. A municipal judge determined there was probable cause to prosecute the officers for a slew of charges, from manslaughter to negligent homicide, but McGinty dismissed that recommendation. It took him nearly a full year to conclude that shooting the preteen was an “objectively reasonable” thing to do.
When Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officers killed Alton Sterling in 2016, bystanders’ videos showed officers using a stun gun on Sterling multiple times and forcing him against a car before shooting him. The East Baton Rouge district attorney quickly recused himself, saying he had worked closely with one of the officers’ parents, who were also police officers. The DOJ took 10 months to investigate before they ultimately decided not to bring federal charges. Only then did Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry take up the case, claiming he needed time to review investigative materials collected by the DOJ. He dragged his feet for another 11 months before declaring that the killing had been justified.
One reason these investigations and outcomes are so frequently slow-pedaled is because officials know how unlikely it is for the cops in question to ever end up in prison. Yes, the delays bring the wrath of the people—but quick action that doesn’t end in conviction might have other political consequences. Others have pointed out that the cozy relationship between prosecutors and police makes it impossible for the former to conduct a fair investigation; prosecutors depend heavily on police to do their jobs and typically aren’t willing to alienate them. Law enforcement cannot fairly investigate itself. It’s also very difficult to secure a guilty verdict against a police officer. The Supreme Court has cooked up permissive standards that justifies police use of deadly force so long as other police officers would see the action as “reasonable.” Stringent police union contracts pile on requirements to allow officers to get their stories straight before being interviewed, or refuse to be interviewed at all.
Judging by his office’s statements this week, Freeman is keeping all of this front of mind. “In order to bring charges and obtain a guilty verdict, there are very specific parts of the law which must be met in prosecuting any crime of violence,” the county attorney’s office tweeted Wednesday. On Thursday, Freeman reiterated, “That video is graphic and horrific and terrible, and no person should do that. But my job in the end is to prove that he violated a criminal statute.”
This statement is revealing. Not only does it hint at the cost-benefit analysis that slowed down prosecution—it shows how prosecution and indictments are driven not by who is actually guilty of a crime but how easy it will be to convict them. The results are visible in the convictions the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office churns out, which look like its counterparts all across the country. Sure, sometimes there’s a strong case with a mountain of evidence. But more often than not, the people who are easiest to convict are those with the least protection, not those with the most evidence. The vast majority of convictions in the U.S. arise from people pleading guilty long before they get to face a jury of their peers. The easiest person to convict is someone who is sitting in a cell awaiting trial because they can’t afford bail. Studies have found that pretrial detention increases the likelihood that someone will be convicted or plead guilty. People in jail also tend to receive longer sentences than people who are able to fight their case from home. If you can’t pay your way out, you plead your way out. Or you hope you survive jail to make it to trial.
These same people tend to be brutalized by the police. Their convictions rarely look like justice. They have reason to be skeptical of the calls for careful investigation before making an arrest—that’s not how it works for them. And they have reason to doubt that a system set up like this can deliver justice to the people it’s victimized so thoroughly. The arrest of Chauvin doesn’t guarantee he will be convicted, or that the city will do what’s necessary to prevent another murder like Floyd’s. But this week, so many residents of the city of Minneapolis demonstrated they won’t be easily satisfied this time.
For more of Slate’s news coverage, listen to The Political Gabfest.