Two years after George Floyd's murder, changing the Minneapolis police may be up to courts

The George Perry Floyd Square sign was unveiled at the corner of 38th and Chicago Ave in honor of the two year anniversary of Floyd’s death on May 25, 2022.
Video by Kerem Yucel for MPR News.

Wednesday marks two years since a police officer killed George Floyd on a Minneapolis street corner, setting off global racial justice protests. Derek Chauvin is in prison for murder and even though the three other former officers on duty with him are also likely to face prison time, many Minneapolis residents say that the systemic changes needed to prevent such killings are still far from reality.

At 38th Street East and Chicago Avenue South, where George Floyd was killed, cars and trucks trickle through a makeshift roundabout that encircles a Black Power fist sculpted of steel. Soon after the murder, people from around the world began coming here to pay their respects to Floyd and to join the calls for racial justice that his murder ignited. And they’re still coming.

LaMyra Sanders of Columbia, S.C. stopped by on Friday. Sanders says she’s hopeful that the movement will bring a fundamental shift in American policing. But she concedes that it won’t happen overnight.

“There’s a place of sadness that still looms here. And it is our prayer that one day justice will be served, and that this will not be a problem. There’s plenty of work to be done.”

While countless numbers of people have passed through George Floyd Square over the last two years, Marcia Howard has been a constant presence here, leading a protest occupation of about a dozen people who keep the area tidy and watch for trouble. Her group met recently to discuss how they’ll welcome the throngs of visitors expected for anniversary events, starting with Wednesday’s candlelight vigil.

A group of people sit on a bench
Marcia Howard, wearing the yellow headband, meets with a group of volunteers at George Floyd Square on May 23, 2022.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Minneapolis city leaders want to build a permanent memorial to Floyd as part of work to repave the street and upgrade public transit.  But Howard, a Black 49-year-old high school English teacher and retired Marine, vows not to let that happen until there’s a substantive change in how police treat people of color.

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“The only thing that seems to change anything in the city of Minneapolis is collective action. We’re not burning down Lake Street. We’re not walking down University Avenue,” Howard said. “We’re standing in place, in situ, where a Black man was lynched in public. And we’re saying we’re not moving.”

Those calls were loudest immediately following the killing. Less than two weeks after Floyd’s murder, nine Minneapolis City Council members, a supermajority, stood on a stage at Powderhorn Park and pledge to “dismantle” the MPD. At their feet in large block letters were the words “DEFUND POLICE.”

That did not happen. The council has continued to fund the department, including new recruit classes to replace the hundreds of officers who’ve left.

Despite an opinion poll showing low trust in the MPD, 56 percent voters in November rejected a proposal to replace the department with a new city safety agency that would have included armed law enforcement “if necessary.”

The plan was bold, but its lack of details likely scared off voters, said Kami Chavis, who leads the Criminal Justice Program at Wake Forest University’s law school.

“I think it was probably just a bridge too far for some people to say: ‘Wait a minute. We’re going to do away with what we have, and we’re not sure what this new thing is that you’re proposing,’” Chavis said.

Chavis said that any transformational shift in policing is likely to come from the courts. Last month, Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero called for judicial oversight of the MPD after releasing the results of a two-year investigation that found a “pattern or practice” racial discrimination. The U.S. Justice Department began a similar investigation more than a year ago.

Meanwhile criminal cases are still moving ahead. Former officer Thomas Lane — who helped Derek Chauvin pin Floyd to the street — pleaded guilty last week to manslaughter. In exchange for a three-year sentence, prosecutors agreed to drop a count of aiding and abetting murder.

J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, the other former officers who were on duty with Chauvin when he killed Floyd, are expected to go on trial June 13 on charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department, launched soon after the murder, found many instances where investigators said the MPD and the city failed to properly train or hold police officers to account.

A sign reads justice for George Floyd
A sign demanding justice for George Floyd hangs from a security fence around the burnt-out 3rd Police Precinct on the second anniversary of the police murder of Floyd on May 25, 2022. Two years after unrest and protests gripped the city and the world, the police precinct remains badly damaged.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Over two years, the MDHR investigators reviewed body camera video and discipline records and interviewed community members and officers. They found that some officers targeted suspects, community members, and even colleagues with racist and misogynistic slurs.

The city agreed to work with the state on a plan to make improvements to the police department so that it complies with state law. But meetings between city and state officials are on hold because of a dispute regarding one of the state findings.

In an email sent to Mayor Jacob Frey and city council members last week, Deputy City Attorney Erik Nilsson said after reviewing 15,000 pages of documents, he could not find evidence that police officers used covert social media accounts to target Black people and elected officials outside the scope of official investigations, as MDHR had alleged in its report.