February 26, 2022

A trial of Minneapolis officers, and new thinking about police handling demonstrations


Dear PERF member,

As this week ends, we can see the world changing in some monumental ways. On the plus side, it looks like the COVID pandemic may be receding, and mask mandates and other restrictions are being eased. But that encouraging news is overshadowed by the horrific situation in Ukraine.

There was also a significant development in the world of policing.  On Thursday, the month-long federal trial in St. Paul ended with convictions of three former Minneapolis police officers who had been charged with depriving George Floyd of his Constitutional rights. Last year, former Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in the death of Mr. Floyd. This week, the three other officers who were involved were convicted essentially for failing to stop Chauvin.

At issue were two basic concepts that are familiar to many of us: the duty to intervene, and the duty to render aid. These were two of the 30 Guiding Principles on Use of Force that PERF published back in 2016. While the principle of rendering first aid is relatively recent, the concept of duty to intervene goes back more than 30 years, to the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police officers. Sgt. Stacey Koon, the only supervisor on the scene, failed to step in when four other officers repeatedly struck King with their batons. Four LAPD members were tried in federal court, and Sergeant Koon and one officer were convicted of violating Mr. King’s civil rights. After that, some departments began incorporating duty-to-intervene language into their policies.

What makes the Minneapolis case unusual is that, unlike the Rodney King case, the three officers were charged and convicted not for what they did to George Floyd, but for what they failed to do. All three officers were convicted of depriving Mr. Floyd of his right to medical care, and two of them were convicted of failing to intervene to stop Chauvin.  

I think this decision could have huge implications for the everyday life of working cops.

Part of the dynamic here is our inherent hesitation to question authority. Two of the Minneapolis officers were rookies, just four days out of the training academy.  By contrast, Chauvin was a 19-year veteran and a field training officer. There is the human factor that makes people reluctant to challenge authority.

This is an issue in many professions. Think about a new intern coming out of medical school and watching an experienced surgeon perform an operation. If the intern sees the surgeon doing something wrong, how should the intern deal with calling the surgeon out?

This reluctance to question more experienced colleagues can be especially strong in policing, where the chain of command and deference to senior officers are ingrained into the police culture.

In law enforcement, training programs like Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) and Ethical Policing Is Courageous (EPIC) will help. These programs not only explain the principle behind duty to intervene; they also provide hands-on, scenario-based instruction on how to intervene, and how to accept the intervention of a fellow officer.

How will the convictions in Minneapolis impact policing?  They send a strong message that police officers, regardless of rank or seniority, should step up and step in when they see something wrong or questionable happening.

But there’s another element that must be considered. Will these convictions lead some cops to leave the business, because they worry about being assigned to work with officers who may have a track record of excessive force, have not been held accountable, and now they may be held responsible for the actions of these officers?  And not just through discipline, but held criminally liable.

And will the Minneapolis convictions make some promising candidates more reluctant to consider a career in policing, when they see how difficult it can be? When I talk to cops about whether they would like their children to become cops, now they have to worry that their sons or daughters will face these life-changing situations.  

But it will be interesting to see whether these convictions result in more officers questioning actions by their fellow officers, especially superior officers. In a para-military environment like the policing profession, this would be a major change – and a positive one.

A new PERF report on the demonstrations of 2020

For most of you, the summer of 2020 will be remembered as the summer when the extent and nature of protests radically changed across America. Most of the daytime demonstrations about the death of George Floyd were large and peaceful, but at night, in cities across the country, some of the demonstrators became violent.  And American police agencies were not prepared for the level of violence and anger directed at the police.

In a number of cities, we saw a common theme: Police faced specific challenges when restrictions were placed on their use of certain less-lethal tools.

For example, use of CS gas became controversial in Seattle and in Portland, OR.  After 65 straight nights of demonstrations, Portland Chief Chuck Lovell told us, “There has been a lot of angst about the use of CS gas here. I’ve fought that, because it’s our best way to effectively disperse a hostile crowd. It’s not an elegant or precise tool, but we give several announcements and provide every opportunity to vacate the area prior to using it. And without the ability to use that, I essentially have officers out there, outnumbered with a hostile crowd, with only sticks to defend themselves or repel a crowd. The risk of longer-term injury in that scenario is much greater.”

As a consequence of these demonstrations, I know of a number of police chiefs who were forced to resign. It was a very rough year for the police.

With all of this as background, PERF wrote a new report that we released yesterday, Rethinking the Police Response to Mass Demonstrations: 9 Recommendations. The Associated Press wrote a story about our report, here.

I encourage you to check out our report. Perhaps our most important recommendation was that we need much better research and policies about CS gas, pepper spray, rubber and plastic bullets, bean-bag rounds, “flash-bang” devices, and other less-lethal weapons. 

I hope you find our report helpful.  Have a great weekend.