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Justice Department Investigations Don’t Actually Challenge Police Violence

The proceduralism of the DOJ won’t stop police killings, just as years of “police reform” didn’t save George Floyd.

A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest outside the Brooklyn Center police station on April 17, 2021, in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.

George Floyd’s family lawyer and famous civil rights attorney Ben Crump hailed the recent conviction of Derek Chauvin as “a turning point in history.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bizarrely thanked Floyd for “sacrificing [his] life for justice.” But without the video recording by a teenage bystander, the burning down of the Third Precinct station and the most mass militant movement across the U.S. in the last 50 years, Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) Chief Medaria Arradondo would have more likely awarded Chauvin for his actions rather than testify against him. Chauvin had previously used force against civilians, including the killing of a man who allegedly brandished a shotgun, but remained on the force. Chauvin’s trial was striking for a number of city employees testifying against him, most of all other cops. It was clear by the end of the trial that after the mass upheaval spurred by Floyd’s death, the city of Minneapolis was more than prepared to wash its hands of Derek Chauvin — sacrificing one officer in an attempt to salvage and absolve policing as a whole.

We would be mistaken to see this as a moment that has effectively broken “the blue wall of silence.” Quite the opposite. Chauvin’s conviction is an anomaly. He is just one of seven officers to be convicted of murdering a civilian since 2005, comprising a mere 5 percent of all cases brought to trial — a figure which is itself a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of yearly police shootings. Besides the potential fear of popular unrest, the narrow judicial interpretation of excessive force that served to exculpate Darren Wilson in the murder of Michael Brown worked to convict Derek Chauvin. The prosecution argued that Chauvin used more excessive force than is acceptable for a police officer. “To be very clear, this case is called the ‘State of Minnesota vs. Derek Chauvin,’ this case is not called the ‘State of Minnesota vs. the police,” Steven Schleicher told the jury in his closing comments.

It was important for the prosecution, and the state it represented, that Chauvin be split off from the ordinary racist police violence that is a daily feature of life in the United States.

Since 2014, the growth of street rebellion and the movement for Black lives have revealed two competing visions for how the U.S. social order, and its intrinsic structural racism, can be maintained. Donald Trump threatened protesters with violence when he stated: “When the looting starts the shooting starts,” a phrase previously uttered by a long line of racists, including Eugene “Bull” Connor and George Wallace. The liberal side wants symbolic representation, performative “community partnerships” with hand-picked pro-business locals, and the occasional convicted cop.

We know which side the Biden administration is on. In the immediate wake of Chauvin’s conviction, taking a page out of Obama’s playbook, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced a sweeping Justice Department investigation into the MPD.

This news came a few days after he rolled back a Trump cap on federal oversight into police departments, or what are usually termed consent decrees. Garland’s probe will examine the MPD’s oversight, internal accountability mechanisms and training, with particular attention to the issues of discrimination and Minneapolis cops’ use of force against civilians. “Building trust between the community and law enforcement will take time and effort by all of us,” Garland concluded, “but we undertake this task with determination and urgency, knowing that change cannot wait.”

Such DOJ reports can be useful sources of information. The agency’s 2015 investigation of Ferguson, Missouri, shed considerable light on the predatory policing practices that Black Ferguson residents had to deal with on a daily basis. Unfortunately, it is one thing to investigate a problem, and another thing to do anything about it. It is worth considering that the DOJ under Barack Obama, even when feeling the heat post-Ferguson, did not prosecute a single cop for shooting a Black person. Of course, as we’ve noted in relation to Chauvin, prosecuting cops will not actually stop the violence of policing, but it’s worth noting that the DOJ is not even taking action on its own carceral terms.

With Biden in power, it is safe to assume that we will see more consent decrees in the near future. And when it comes to police reform in the wake of the George Floyd rebellion, what we can expect from the DOJ will most assuredly be old wine in new jars.

The city of Minneapolis itself is a case in point. The abolitionist group MPD 150 has situated the slew of failed police reforms in the wider historical context of widespread corruption, violence and white supremacy. Before the Minneapolis Police Department became notorious around the world for the death of George Floyd, it was the site of aggressive police reform. In 2015, in the wake of Ferguson, the MPD was one of six police jurisdictions selected as part of the Obama Justice Department’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Then, as now, the federal government was responding post festum, not to a police shooting — a daily occurrence in the United States — but to the riotous rebellion that a police shooting had engendered. Over the course of three years, the federal government spent $4.75 million to create an “evidence-based” protocol for repairing relations between police officers like Derek Chauvin and Minneapolis citizens like George Floyd.

The MPD was led at the time by Chief Janeé Harteau, who had taken over in 2012 as a self-professed reformer. However, a 2015 DOJ investigation found the department was not disciplining abusive officers, as routine practice up and down the chain of command evaded any substantive accountability. Cops whose actions could not simply be ignored were sent to special training, consisting of reading the police manual aloud.

Nonetheless, Harteau worked with the federal government, introducing “MPD 2.0: A New Police Model,” meant to shift the department to a model of “community policing.” Community policing is a suspect concept. “The first thing that nearly all proponents of community policing say about community policing,” write David Correia and Tyler Wall in Police: A Field Guide, “is that there’s no definition of community policing.” Instead, it means just about anything that involves police interacting with the people they police, and has proven a lucrative source of federal funding for departments willing to classify the ordinary police work of street patrols and cultivating strategic relationships among the populations they police under the jargon of community policing.

Much of what the DOJ is not investigating was already investigated — and modified — during this time. In 2016, Harteau oversaw the MPD’s redrafting of its “use of force” policies. In a further detail that stands out in the wake of Floyd’s death, the department mandated that officers intervene to prevent their fellow cops from using excessive force. The revision of policy also included the usual verbiage on avoiding bias, procedural justice and so-called crisis intervention. All of this had been done already when Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, while his three cop accomplices prevented passersby from saving Floyd’s life.

The summer of 2020 saw people all across the U.S. taking direct action against the police violence endemic to structural racism in the United States. The people of Minneapolis setting fire to the Third Precinct station, and the nationwide rebellion this catalyzed, are to thank for the conviction of Derek Chauvin. By contrast, the empty proceduralism of the DOJ will not put a stop to police killings in the U.S., just as years of police reform in Minneapolis did not save George Floyd.

It is only by deepening and radicalizing the mass movement against the violence of policing — and the structurally racist social order which policing upholds — that we can reverse the grisly tide of civilian deaths at the hands of U.S. police.

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