The Justice Department is launching an investigation into the practices of the Minneapolis police force, Attorney General Merrick announced Wednesday. The probe is separate from the criminal investigation the department has already launched into the killing of George Floyd by a police officer last year.
These kinds of sweeping police investigations — known as a pattern-or-practice investigations — were almost never conducted under the Trump administration, whose DOJ leadership was critical of such investigations and the consent decrees that often flowed from them.
The announcement of the launch of the Minneapolis investigation comes just one day after a jury found former officer Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of Floyd, a Black man whose death launched nationwide demonstrations calling for police reform and racial justice last summer.
“Yesterday’s verdict in the state criminal trial does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis,” Garland said. “Today, I am announcing that the Justice Department has opened a civil investigation to determine whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing.”
The launch of the investigation also marks a dramatic shift in the department’s approach to policing under the new administration. President Trump’s first attorney general Jeff Sessions vowed to “pull back” on such policing investigations soon after he took the helm of the department. The DOJ’s authority to conduct the wide-ranging civil rights reviews of police departments was granted by Congress in 1994 in the wake of the Rodney King beating.
But both Sessions and Trump Attorney General Bill Barr took actions that gutted the Justice Department’s ability to reach court agreements with local police departments that have been investigated for systemic civil rights abuses. They also sought to unwind the court agreements that were forged in DOJ policing investigations during the Obama administration.
Civil rights lawyers who served in the Obama administration have returned or will soon return to department. Among them is Vanita Gupta, who is expected to be confirmed by the Senate Wednesday as associate attorney general, the number three department role.
As the DOJ civil rights head in the final years of the Obama administration, Gupta oversaw the the final phases of the Ferguson, Missouri investigation that resulted in a landmark report on the city’s policing practices as well as a consent decree reforming its police department.