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Justice Officials Probe Minneapolis Police Over Questions Of Excessive Force


Shortly after the guilty verdicts for one-time Officer Derek Chauvin, the federal Justice Department announced an investigation of the rest of the Minneapolis police. Mayor Jacob Frey told NPR he approves.


JACOB FREY: I believe strongly that it's an opportunity to continue working towards that deep change and accountability that we know that we need in the Minneapolis department.

INSKEEP: Let's discuss this with former federal prosecutor Paul Butler. Welcome back to the program, sir.

PAUL BUTLER: Good morning, Steve. It's great to be here.

INSKEEP: So it's a pattern-or-practice investigation, as the Justice Department calls it. What is that, exactly?

BUTLER: The Justice Department is back in the business of enforcing civil rights. The Obama administration brought about 20 of these investigations. And the Trump administration brought one or two. What happens is experienced investigators and lawyers go to the city - in this case, Minneapolis - and they do a lot of listening to citizens, police officers, community leaders and elected officials. And then those investigators make strong recommendations about how the Minneapolis police department can better serve the community. The recommendations can be very specific - for example, preventing officers from making the kind of pretextual traffic stops that led to the death of Daunte Wright last week not far from the courtroom where the Chauvin trial happened.

INSKEEP: Well, this is really interesting because you're telling me that this is not a specific criminal probe of a specific individual. It's about how does the apartment do - how does the department do its business? I'm recalling that in Ferguson, Mo., after an incident there during the Obama administration, they announced a pattern-or-practice investigation, took about five months, did reveal a pattern or practice of excessive force linked to racial bias. The police department updated their rules and guidelines. The new chief has had to follow them. Federal monitoring has lasted for years. Is that what Minneapolis faces then?

BUTLER: That's exactly right. So first comes the very strong recommendations. And if the department does not both adopt those regulations and comply with them, they get sued for civil rights violations by the Justice Department.

INSKEEP: How much does it matter whether a police force welcomes this kind of scrutiny or quietly or passively resists it?

BUTLER: It matters quite a bit. Often, police culture resists that kind of intervention from the outside. But the reality is these investigations by the Justice Department can be very effective. There're 18,000 different police departments in the United States, which means there are 18,000 different ways of policing. So these investigations are a way of imposing some national standards and requirements on police departments that have gotten into trouble.

INSKEEP: When you think about what is known about the Minneapolis police department - and I should mention, it's not just the Chauvin case. There are also questions about how this particular department handled protests, including protests after George Floyd's death. Do you have any reason to think that Minneapolis is in some way uniquely bad or uniquely troubled?

BUTLER: Not at all. Almost every big city, at this point, has had an investigation by the Justice Department based on police practices that concern members of the community. And these reforms work, at least in the short term. Fewer people get killed and beat up by police officers. And most community members report that they feel better about the police after the Justice Department has intervened.

INSKEEP: Really? So it is measurable that people feel more confident with their police because police procedures have changed in a way that people on the street genuinely feel?

BUTLER: Absolutely. Steve, this kind of reform makes more of a difference for policing than the conviction of one bad-apple cop. To attack systemic discrimination, it's the law itself that has to change. But what this Chauvin conviction tells us, what it helps us understand, is that change is possible.

INSKEEP: Former federal prosecutor Paul Butler is now at Georgetown and the author of "Chokehold: Policing Black Men." Thanks so much.

BUTLER: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.