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Last May, the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked a global movement against racism and police brutality. The city of Minneapolis is gearing up again for potential unrest as prosecutors move ahead this week with the trail for that police officer, Derek Chauvin. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Minnesota Public Radio senior report Jon Collins about how that pursuit of legal accountability is taking shape in Minneapolis and why the path forward is anything but guaranteed. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Part of the reason I wanted to talk to you about the trial is that you’ve covered criminal justice issues in and around Minneapolis for a long time. And so you see this case as not just one case but part of a larger pattern in the state. Can explain that a bit?
Jon Collins: So in Minnesota, like many other places, we’ve had high-profile killings of civilians by police officers for decades and decades. The relationship specifically between the Black community in Minneapolis and police has never been good. Police misconduct has been at the root of a lot of tensions. We could go all the way back to 1966, 1967, when there were riots in the north part of the city; it was police misconduct that sparked those. And we’ve had so many high-profile shooting deaths, mostly of Black men by police officers, that people I talk to say that every time something happens, whether it’s in Minneapolis or in the suburbs or St. Paul, that the trauma that they feel builds. So the reaction has also built into pressure that was put on prosecutors to have accountability.
You’ve talked about this snowballing effect, but I was struck that your attorney general, Keith Ellison, has been pretty honest that prosecuting police officers is hard. And he’s pointed out that the county attorney for Hennepin County involved in this case is the only prosecutor in the state who successfully prosecuted a police officer for murder, which is pretty remarkable.
We’ve only had one police officer who’s been convicted in the state for killing someone on duty. We’ve had three trials so far, and the other two have been exonerated. In Minnesota, like in many other states, because of the protections that police officers are given under the law—because the law does acknowledge that their jobs are hard, that they’re dangerous, that they do have authority to use force—it can be really difficult to get successful charges. And traditionally, jurors are sympathetic to police because they understand that it can be a tough and dangerous job.
And this isn’t a shooting death. It’s a death where Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes. And that kind of restraint, I’ve read, has never led to serious charges like this before.
Normally when we cover these trials—this will be the fourth trial of a police officer in Minnesota for killing someone—one thing that’s at the heart of arguments from the defense is that you can’t legally use 20/20 hindsight and say, “Hey, I knew that Philando Castile was not up to any trouble” or whatever. The jury has to consider what a reasonable police officer would do at the time, knowing what they knew and having to make a split-second decision. So that has given officers a lot of leeway. But this case involves, as you said, an officer who didn’t make a split-second decision; he made a decision for nine minutes to kneel on George Floyd’s neck, so that changes this case and makes it different than any other case that we’ve had with police officers in Minnesota.
You’ve got a city where everyone has seen what’s happened over the past year—the protests—but we also have this pandemic going on. And that’s a really dicey circumstance to be choosing a jury in because everyone probably has an opinion on what took place, and no one really wants to be in the same room together. How’s that moving forward?
Prosecutors really wanted to push the trial back. Their argument was that holding a trial during a pandemic before many people are vaccinated in the state presents not only a danger to the people who have to be in the courtroom but to the public if there are protests or large gatherings. And the judge declined to move Chauvin’s trial. Because there are such restrictions on who can gather in the courtroom proper, we’re not going to have much media presence or any members of the public, really, that are allowed in the courtroom. There’s just not space to keep it safe. And so what they’re doing is allowing the media to livestream from different cameras in the courtroom to our organizations.
And typically, there aren’t cameras in the courtroom
Yeah, Minnesota never allows cameras in the courtroom. You can’t have a recording, and you certainly can’t take pictures or anything. It’s one of the more restrictive court systems in the country.
I read that the jurors are being mailed, like, 14 pages of questions about all kinds of things, about how they feel about the police and conspiracy theories and the media.
Yeah, and Black Lives Matter and what their experiences are with the court system, with police officers. They really want to give these attorneys what these people’s backgrounds are and beliefs and see if they can fairly assess whether an officer did commit a crime or not.
As of the time that we’re recording this, what Derek Chauvin is being charged with is actually still being decided. That’s because prosecutors want to charge him with second-degree unintentional murder, second-degree manslaughter, and third-degree murder. In Minnesota, third-degree murder has typically been reserved for a case in which more than one person has been put at risk—say, if someone shoots into a crowd. But the state attorney general would like to expand this definition.
Prosecutors are pushing yet again to get third-degree murder reinstated. And we still don’t know exactly how that is going to pan out, but it would make it way more difficult for Derek Chauvin and his attorney to defend him against three separate charges.
Why is that harder?
It restricts the arguments that he can make to say that it’s not his fault or to say that it was self-defense, because he now has to avoid implicating himself for third-degree murder. So it’s more challenging legally, and it restricts the arguments that he can make to defend himself.
Do you look at this changing interpretation of what third-degree murder is in Minnesota as meaningful in terms of what prosecutors are now willing to do? How aggressively they want to pursue charges against police officers?
Someone I was talking to the other day–an attorney—was arguing that maybe the changing case law, the way the appeals court interpreted third-degree murder, means that that is a charge that can be successfully prosecuted against police officers if they have this broader definition of that. If it is upheld by the state Supreme Court, where it’s headed now, that could potentially be one more and maybe a more solid tool for prosecutors in future prosecutions if they do have incidents where police kill someone.
Let’s turn to Derek Chauvin, who is accused of killing George Floyd. I should say police encountered George Floyd after an employee of a corner store, a place called CUP Foods, alleged he might have been trying to use counterfeit money. So what do we know about Chauvin? What have we learned about him in the past few months?
Derek Chauvin is a veteran police officer. He was the senior officer. He’s been essentially the trainer—think of him as the mentor for younger officers, showing them the ropes. We do know that he has a pretty extensive number of complaints about him, most of which were not substantiated. And we don’t know what they were exactly, but some of that will come up at trial.
I think you said 22 complaints in 19 years.
It’s hard to tell with Minneapolis police because if they’re not substantiated, we don’t know what they are. And in many cases, there’s not any sort of punishment or discipline that’s meted out. In Minneapolis, police have a history of doing this thing where they essentially coach the officer who did something, and they don’t consider discipline. So it often doesn’t become public.
So if someone does something wrong, instead of referring it as a complaint, they gently correct an officer.
Yeah, exactly. It’s something that critics will argue makes it difficult to keep officers who are abusive or overstep their authority accountable.
I know your colleagues have spoken to some people who complained about Derek Chauvin and were even choked before George Floyd died. I wonder what you learned from those cases.
Some of them look really similar to other cases that we’ve seen in the city. It points to how entrenched Minneapolis police culture is. Chauvin’s attorney will make the argument at trial that using that sort of hold on George Floyd was not something they were taught not to do. And it’s something that maybe even came up using during some trainings.
Another defense that I’ve heard in this case is that George Floyd died with drugs in his system, and he had underlying health problems, and that those weren’t due to anything Derek Chauvin did. Do you think we’ll be hearing about that as well?
That’s really at the heart of the case. What Chauvin’s attorneys are going to be arguing is that George Floyd died not because of a knee on his neck, but because he had methamphetamines and fentanyl in his system and he had heart problems or long-term health problems that contributed. The prosecutors will argue that the knee is the most important factor in why he died, because without it, he still would have had these underlying health problems, he still would have had drugs in his system, but he would have been alive.
It strikes me that these trials aren’t the only way to hold the police accountable for what happened with George Floyd. There was so much conversation months ago about defunding the police in Minneapolis. What happened with that?
Minneapolis contributed to the national dialogue with vows from the majority of our City Council to essentially defund the police. It turned out that that was more complicated than they thought. Their vision is still in process. Essentially, Minneapolis is required to maintain a certain level of police from our city charter. And City Council members have been trying to change that wording to make it so that Minneapolis doesn’t have to maintain a certain number of Minneapolis police officers and can create a new Department of Public Safety. But as of now, the council has slightly cut the Minneapolis Police Department’s budget. They took more than a million dollars and moved it over to the Office of Violence Prevention. And then there have been quite a few policy changes as well, both at the city level and then state mandates.
Mayor Jacob Frey has announced policies like changing the times when officers are given the authority to use force, changing how they report when they do use force, restricting things like no-knock warrants
What’s changed at the state level since May?
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights ordered the city to ban the use of chokeholds by Minneapolis police and to require officers to intervene if they see a colleague of theirs using force that’s not authorized.
And the state Legislature also passed legislation. Lots of activists said it didn’t go far enough, but it did include a ban on the so-called warrior training, this very aggressive militaristic training. And then, some sorts of trainings that teach officers how to deal with people who have autism.
Is there anyone out there talking explicitly about ways to change the culture of the Minneapolis police? Because it seems like such a tricky thing to do but also so vital.
Mayor Jacob Frey has said that’s one of his priorities. But do we know that it’s making any impact or difference? The daily lived experience of people is going to tell us that.
You’ve covered a lot of trials like this one in the Minneapolis area. Are there particular signs you’re looking for as this trial plays out that will indicate what’s going on behind the scenes?
One thing that will be very interesting is how other officers, not even folks who are charged, will testify. Say, folks who were called to the protest right after George Floyd was killed. What were they saying on their body cameras to other officers? And what does that tell us about how they view the public and how they viewed this incident from the very beginning? There is famously a phrase that law enforcement will often use when on-duty killings are talked about, and they will say, “It’s lawful, but it’s awful,” essentially meaning it doesn’t look good, but it’s not illegal. I’m curious to see how officers talked to each other in the minutes after this happened and whether they knew that potentially this was going to be a bigger issue than even a typical high-profile police killing.