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U.S. Department Of Justice To Investigate The Minneapolis Police Department

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating possible excessive force by the Minneapolis police. This comes just one day after a jury convicted former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin of murder in the death of George Floyd. Attorney General Merrick Garland explained his decision this morning.

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MERRICK GARLAND: Yesterday's verdict in the state criminal trial does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis.

KELLY: Well, here to address this is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: What's the scope of this new investigation? What are they looking for?

JOHNSON: This is a civil investigation, not a criminal one, but they're taking a pretty broad view of things right now. They're looking for possible excessive force and discrimination, including against people at protests, possible mistreatment of people with behavior or health disorders and taking a comprehensive look at training and policies on the Minneapolis police force and asking whether the current systems of accountability for police there are actually working.

KELLY: And the attorney general called this a pattern or practice investigation. How do those work?

JOHNSON: What happens is that civil rights lawyers in Washington, D.C., will be working with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota. Years ago, after that brutal police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, Congress gave the Justice Department authority to examine systemic problems in local police departments. And in these cases, they reach out to community members and even police officers themselves to find out what might be going wrong there and why. Here's Attorney General Merrick Garland again today.

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GARLAND: Good officers welcome accountability because accountability is an essential part of building trust with the community, and public safety requires public trust.

KELLY: And Carrie, are there teeth to this? What happens if the Justice Department finds wrongdoing?

JOHNSON: DOJ would prepare a public report so everyone could read it and then probably go to court. The goal would be to develop a settlement known as a consent decree that a judge could enforce. And sometimes, an independent monitor comes in to make sure the police are living up to their part of the bargain. That process can take months, sometimes a year. So far, the mayor - I told you earlier in the show - and the police chief in Minneapolis also said they're going to cooperate with the feds on this process.

KELLY: Well, let's widen this out beyond Minneapolis, beyond Minnesota. What might this announcement tell us about the priorities of the Biden Justice Department?

JOHNSON: Quite a lot, I think. This tool, the pattern or practice investigation, was very popular during the Obama years. Back then, I covered about two dozen of these investigations in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Chicago. But in the Trump years, there was only one investigation like this. The new DOJ leadership is going to return to using this tool. The investigation in Minneapolis is the first under the Biden administration, but it certainly won't be the last one that we see.

KELLY: Carrie, stay with that for a second. You said there was only one investigation like this in the Trump years, which suggests this is a huge shift from the approach of, say, Trump's first attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

JOHNSON: About as big a policy shift as you can find in the government. Jeff Sessions, Trump's first attorney general, wanted local police to be his partner. He was not in the business of investigating them. And the man who followed Sessions in the job, Bill Barr, decided against opening an investigation of Minneapolis police last year. But now, times have changed. We got a hint of this policy shift late last week when new AG Merrick Garland revoked a Trump-era memo that made it hard for the Justice Department to reach settlements with local police in these cases.

KELLY: Carrie, before we let you go, there was a little news today about the leadership ranks at the Justice Department.

JOHNSON: Some historic news - the Senate has confirmed Vanita Gupta today to be associate attorney general. She ran the Civil Rights Division during the Obama administration. She's considered an aggressive investigator on these issues, but also someone who works to find common ground with police. And Mary Louise, she's the first woman of color and the first civil rights lawyer to hold this job, which is third in command at the Justice Department.

KELLY: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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