Reports: Justice Department ramps up George Floyd investigation into former officer Derek Chauvin

N'dea Yancey-Bragg, USA TODAY
·4 min read

The Department of Justice is ramping up its investigation into former police officer Derek Chauvin over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, The New York Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Tuesday.

Unnamed sources told the Star Tribune that new witnesses have been called and a new grand jury has been impaneled this week. The New York Times first reported the development, adding that the investigation has narrowed its focus to Chauvin instead of the three other former officers also facing state charges in Floyd's death.

Chauvin was seen on video kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd cried out that he couldn't breathe. He was fired soon after Floyd's death on May 25, which sparked nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality for months across the country.

In May, the federal investigation was launched into whether Chauvin and the other officers violated Floyd's civil rights. His trial for state charges, including second-degree murder and manslaughter, is set to begin March 8.

"As is the typical practice, the state’s charging decisions will be made first," then-Attorney General William Barr said in a statement at the time.

The Justice Department has investigated several high-profile police killings of Black Americans, including Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and more recently Jacob Blake, but officers have rarely been charged.

Prosecutors face a high burden of proof, and the Justice Department has always exercised a high degree of restraint when pursuing cases against police officers, focusing on only the "most egregious and relatively obvious cases of police misconduct," said Daniel C. Richman, a former federal prosecutor who teaches federal criminal law at Columbia University.

"The big question that none of us can really figure out is whether the relative lack of federal prosecutions in this area speaks to the relative lack of easy slam-dunk cases or some sort of aversion on the part of the Justice Department to pursue these cases," Richman said.

Federal civil rights prosecutions against law enforcement officers must prove the defendant used unreasonable force and did so "willfully," meaning they specifically intended to violate someone's protected constitutional rights, Richman said.

"Both of those two are a little squishy," Richman said.

The crime does not have to be motivated by racial bias, according to the Justice Department.

A bill was proposed in July, called the Breathe Act, that would change the standard for prosecuting federal civil rights cases from “willfully” to “knowingly or recklessly.” Richman cautioned that changing the law in this area might not help change the decision-making at the Department of Justice about what cases to pursue.

'An enormous red flag': After George Floyd's death, some call for a broader federal investigation

The Tribune reported that the federal investigation involves a 2017 incident in which Chauvin allegedly jammed his knee into the back of a 14-year-old boy who said he couldn't breathe during an arrest. In January, a judge ruled that several earlier incidents involving Chauvin's use of force or restraint techniques could not be brought up during the Minnesota state trial.

Chauvin is out on bail and has pleaded not guilty to the charges brought by state prosecutors after Barr personally blocked a plea deal last year, officials told The Associated Press.

The deal would have averted any potential federal charges, including a civil rights offense, according to two law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the talks that spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks.

The three other former officers – Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao – are charged with aiding and abetting both counts. They are scheduled to stand trial together in August.

The National Guard has been activated and hundreds of law enforcement officers are set to guard Minneapolis as authorities prepare more unrest ahead of the trial next month.

More: Investigation faults overall police treatment in the fatal arrest of Elijah McClain

Daniel Prude grand jury: New York police officers will not face charges in death

Contributing: The Associated Press

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: George Floyd: DOJ ramping up investigation into Derek Chauvin