April 21 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday launched a sweeping civil investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis following a jury’s verdict that former city police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.
The probe is the first major action of Attorney General Merrick Garland, after President Joe Biden vowed to address systemic racism in the United States. It will consider whether the department engages "in a pattern or practice of using excessive force, including during protests," he said.
He added it will also examine whether the department "engages in discriminatory conduct and whether its treatment of those with behavioral health disabilities is unlawful."
Chauvin's conviction was a milestone in the fraught racial history of the United States and a rebuke of law enforcement's treatment of Black Americans. Floyd's death was one in a long list of police killings that prompted nationwide protests.
"I know such wounds have deep roots. That too many communities have experienced those wounds firsthand. Yesterday's verdict in the state criminal trial does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis," Garland said.
Garland has previously said he will make cracking down on police misconduct a priority.
A separate criminal Justice Department investigation into whether the officers involved in Floyd's death violated his civil rights continues, Garland said.
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights is also conducting its own investigation into the police department there.
In separate statements, both the city attorney and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said they welcomed the federal investigation, and pledged to cooperate.
The Minneapolis City Council also signaled its support for the probe, saying it welcomed "the opportunity for the Department of Justice to use the full weight of its authority to hold the Minneapolis Police Department accountable for any and all abuses of power."
The decision to open a probe into systemic policing problems marks a sharp contrast from the administration of former President Donald Trump, which sharply curtailed the use of court-enforcement agreements to prevent police departments from violating peoples' civil rights.
Garland rescinded that policy on Friday, saying the department would be returning to its traditional practices of investigating state and local police departments and allowing unit heads to approve most settlements and consent decrees.
On Wednesday, Garland said Justice Department officials had already started to reach out to community groups in Minneapolis to ask about their experiences with law enforcement and they also plan to speak with police officers there about the training and support they receive.
If a finding of misconduct is uncovered, Garland said the Justice Department would issue a public report, and it could also potentially file a civil lawsuit so that it could seek relief from a judge.
Lisa Bender, the Minneapolis City Council president, told Reuters in an interview that Justice Department officials informed the city of its decision to open the investigation on Wednesday morning shortly before it became public.
Bender said she was not surprised by the news, noting that communities of color there have been long complaining about problems with overpolicing.
"Even just our publicly available data shows disparate outcomes on who is being pulled over in traffic stops," she said, adding that she and her colleagues "welcome any opportunity to understand what is contributing to those disparate outcomes and looking at ways we can improve."
Currently, the Justice Department has four police practice probes open in addition to the one in Minneapolis. The others, which were opened prior to Garland’s tenure, are focused on the Orange County, Ca. district attorney and sheriff's offices, as well as the police department in Springfield, Mass.
It is also currently enforcing a total of 16 settlements with law enforcement agencies across the country.
The jury on Tuesday found Chauvin, 45, guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter after considering three weeks of testimony from 45 witnesses, including bystanders, police officials and medical experts.
In a confrontation captured on video, Chauvin, a white veteran of the police force, pushed his knee into the neck of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in handcuffs, for more than nine minutes on May 25, 2020.
The conviction triggered a wave of relief and reflection not only across the United States but in countries around the world.
Even as crowds celebrated the verdict, protesters called for justice in the case of Daunte Wright, a Black man who was fatally shot by a police officer after a routine traffic stop on April 11, just a few miles from where Chauvin stood trial. Kimberly Potter, who has turned in her badge, has been charged with manslaughter in that case.
As the country focused on the guilty verdict in Minneapolis, police in Columbus, Ohio, fatally shot a Black teenage girl they confronted as she lunged at two people with a knife, as seen in police video footage of the encounter, authorities said. The incident sparked street protests in Ohio.
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