ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Since the murder of George Floyd nearly two years ago on a south Minneapolis street corner, the public and justice system’s attention has been overwhelming for the police officer who killed him, Derek Chauvinist.
Mr. Chauvin was found guilty of two counts of murder at a state trial last spring for kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. He also pleaded guilty to federal crimes of violating Mr. Floyd’s constitutional rights.
But Mr. Chauvin was not the only police officer present that day. Three other people who were at the scene face trial starting Monday in a federal courthouse in downtown St. Paul, Minn., charged with willfully failing to intervene against Mr. Chauvin and to help Mr. Floyd.
The case is an extremely rare example of federal civil rights charges being filed against rank and file officers for failing to stop the actions of a senior officer. Several experts say his outcome could have a bigger impact on police than even Mr. Chauvin’s convictions.
Indeed, the case concerns a much more common aspect of police culture than Mr. Chauvin’s brutality: officers who do not intervene in the conduct of their colleagues.
Federal law requires police officers to intervene in the actions of other police officers to end constitutional violations, and courts have affirmed this obligation for decades. At the same time, police departments train officers to act against other officers to stop misconduct. But policing is very hierarchical and there is sometimes a nagging culture of silence among officers when one of their own is accused of wrongdoing.
“This is far more common and insidious police misconduct than Chauvin’s extreme act of violence,” said Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a former federal prosecutor. “What these three defendants allegedly did and failed to do reflects the police workplace culture that allows criminal acts by officers.”
If all three officers are found guilty, “it would be an important step in dismantling the blue wall of silence when cops close ranks and refuse to intervene when they see another officer doing wrong,” Mr Butler said. .
Two of the officers on trial were rookies and on their first days on the job when Mr. Floyd, a black man, was killed: Thomas Lane, 38, who was positioned on Mr. Floyd’s legs during the incident, and J. Alexander Kueng, 28, who was on Mr. Floyd’s back. The third officer, Tou Thao, 36, a veteran officer who was Mr Chauvin’s partner and has a history of misconduct complaints, held back a crowd of bystanders who were growing increasingly distressed and angry over the killing which they witnessed in the fading daylight on Memorial Day 2020.
The term civil rights in this case does not imply race but the violation of Mr. Floyd’s constitutional rights to be free from wrongful seizure and not to be deprived of liberty without due process.
Race was rarely explicitly mentioned in the murder trial of Mr. Chauvin, who is white, even as the case inspired the biggest displays of racial justice in generations and focused the nation’s attention on the police brutality against black people. In the federal trial, one of the defendants, Mr. Kueng, is African American, Mr. Thao is Asian American, and Mr. Lane is white.
Mr Lane, who twice asked Mr Chauvin if they should turn Mr Floyd to his side, is charged with one count of failing to provide medical aid to Mr Floyd, a duty that police officers have under the law. Mr. Keung and Mr. Thao face the same charge, plus one count of failure to intervene with the use of force by Mr. Chauvin.
The case is “significant because it centers the discussion on what others have a duty to do,” said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor who is a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in St. Paul, Minn. “To step up and not rely on the wrongdoers. And that’s a central discussion in policing right now.
Defense lawyers for Mr Keung and Mr Lane, the two recruits, are expected to blame Mr Chauvin and argue that the pair were following their senior officer’s lead. Mr Thao’s lawyer is likely to argue that his client was too busy dealing with the mob to know exactly what was happening to Mr Floyd, legal experts say. All three are still charged in state court with aiding and abetting the murder, in a trial scheduled for June.
To make their case, prosecutors will have to prove their will, a high standard under the law that implies some form of intent. In the past, federal prosecutors have been reluctant to bring these types of cases because of the difficulty in proving willpower.
“The basic idea is that the officer should know he’s doing something wrong,” said Rachel Harmon, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department‘s civil rights division, who now teaches at law school. from the University of Virginia. “Doing something with the intention of doing something that the law forbids. He does not need to think specifically in constitutional terms.
For decades, the courts have recognized that police officers have a duty to intervene against other police officers. Following the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, departments, including in Minneapolis, trained recruits to act against their colleagues when they see misconduct.
But federal criminal cases — either against officers who used deadly force or those who stood back and watched — have been rare. Highlighting the difficulty of proving willpower, the Justice Department has declined to bring charges in some of the most high-profile police killings in recent memory, including the deaths of Eric Garner on Staten Island, Michael Brown on Ferguson, in Missouri, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
One of the best-known federal prosecutions against officers was the conviction of two police officers for the beating of Rodney King, after they were acquitted in state court. One of those convicted was a sergeant, Stacey Koon, for failing to intervene as other officers beat Mr King.
At the state level, officers have also rarely been held accountable for standing aside when another police officer used unlawful and deadly force. In the 2014 police murder of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, the officer who shot him, Jason Van Dyke, was convicted of murder. But three other officers were acquitted of charges of lying about the shooting to protect Mr Van Dyke.
One of the extraordinary aspects of Mr. Chauvin’s state trial was the number of officers who took the witness stand to disavow the actions of their former colleague. “To continue to apply this level of force to a person lying in handcuffs behind their back – that in no way shape or form is something that is political,” the police chief said. Minneapolis at the time, Medaria Arradondo, from the witness box.
And outside the courtroom, law enforcement officials across the country cheered the sentencing.
This time might be different. While prosecutors are expected to call officers to the stand to testify about the training they have received on what to do when they see another officer using excessive force, the law enforcement community at at large may have more sympathy for the three officers than she had for Mr. Chauvin, said lawyers who have been involved in court cases against officers.
“Every cop out there is going to see themselves in their position,” said John Marti, a former Minnesota federal prosecutor. “They’re going to remember when they were young officers and they were running the old bulls around probably using brute force. And they’re going to look back on that day and be like, ‘There’s no way I would have resisted my training officer.’
Mr. Chauvin, for his part, will hover over the debates. When nearly 300 potential jurors arrived at the federal courthouse here Thursday morning, one of the first things the judge told them was to disregard everything they’ve heard about Mr. Chauvin’s crimes .
“The crimes to which Mr. Chauvin pleaded guilty are entirely separate from those at issue here,” said Judge Paul A. Magnuson, appointed to the federal bench by President Reagan in 1981.
An 18-person jury – 12 incumbents and six alternates – was selected in one day last week, a stark contrast to the nearly two weeks it took to choose a jury in the state murder trial of M Chauvin. The panel in this case is overwhelmingly white, in part because in federal cases, courts can call jurors from across the state, including from areas that are whiter and more conservative than the Minneapolis metro area.
Experts say it is only a remote possibility that Mr Chauvin will be called to testify, although in his plea agreement he acknowledged that he had been “aided and abetted” by his fellow officers, and that he had never threatened them with “disregarding or not complying” with departmental policies.
“You don’t want John Gotti to cooperate against his soldiers,” Mr Marti said. “You want his soldiers to cooperate against John Gotti. You want to cooperate upwards, you don’t want to cooperate downwards.