MINNEAPOLIS — Earlier in his career, the African American chief of the Minneapolis police sued his own department, accusing the leadership of tolerating racism. Once he took charge, he vowed to make mending relations with the city’s Black residents a priority.
But the department, with its long history of accusations of abuse, finds itself under siege again after a video captured a Black man suffocating beneath the knee of a white officer, with three other officers failing to intervene.
Medaria Arradondo, the chief, swiftly fired all four men Tuesday and called for an FBI investigation once the video showed that the official police account of the arrest of the man, George Floyd, bore little resemblance to what actually occurred.
But quelling the community rage has been a challenge.
When hundreds of residents poured into the Minneapolis streets Tuesday night to protest Floyd’s death, officers used tear gas and fired rubber bullets into the crowd, eliciting cries of biased policing.
Protests grew hostile again Wednesday night, when hundreds of demonstrators clashed with the police, who deployed loud grenades in an effort to disperse the crowds. Images on television and social media showed some vandalism and fires. The demonstrations also spread to Los Angeles, where law enforcement faced off with protesters who had blocked the 101 Freeway downtown.
Floyd’s death — and the recent shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia — has drawn national outrage and prompted comparisons to previous killings involving the police and Black people, including those of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
Arradondo, who as a lieutenant joined a lawsuit that portrayed his department as a cauldron of racist behavior, has struggled to overhaul the department. Community activists are now calling for it to be federally reviewed and for murder charges against the officers involved in Floyd’s arrest and death.
Excessive force complaints against Minneapolis officers have become commonplace, especially by African American residents. One of the officers involved in Floyd’s death, a 19-year veteran of the department identified as Derek Chauvin, 44, had several complaints filed against him, three of which led to reprimands for his language and tone.
Chauvin shot a man who was trying to grab an officer’s gun in 2008, according to the Pioneer Press. He was also present at two other shootings, one of them fatal, but it was unclear if he fired his weapon in those cases, according to Communities United Against Police Brutality, a local organization advocating police reform.
African Americans account for about 20% of the city’s population, but they are more likely to be pulled over, arrested and have force used against them than white residents, Police Department data shows. And Black people accounted for more than 60% of the victims in Minneapolis police shootings from late 2009 through May 2019, data shows.
The tension between the community and the 800-plus-officer force has unfolded in a predominantly white and progressive metropolis, where the white mayor openly discusses systemic racism, the police chief is a Black man who embraces a community-oriented approach, and residents elected two Black transgender people to a City Council that has taken aggressive action to curb racial segregation.
Yet there is a deep rift between the city’s police force — which also is predominantly white — and the community, one that seems to grow larger with each killing.
There was Justine Ruszczyk, a white woman who was fatally shot by a Black police officer in 2017, and whose family was awarded $20 million in a settlement with the city three days after the officer was convicted of murder.
There was Thurman Blevins, a Black man who begged two white police officers, closing in on him, “Please don’t shoot me. Leave me alone,” in a fatal encounter captured on body-camera footage. His death two years ago led to protests across the city.
And there was Chiasher Fong Vue, a Hmong man who was killed in December during a shootout with nine officers, who fired more than 100 bullets, according to the Star Tribune.
“The truth is we do not have a good history,” said Jamar Nelson, 41, a longtime community activist. “The biggest complaint is that the community feels the Police Department is racist, bigoted and uncaring about the Black community.”
The graphic video of Floyd’s death took Tiffany Roberson back nearly 20 years, she said, to when an officer pinned her to the hood of a car, his forearm across her neck as she gasped for air.
It also reminded her of five years ago, when her brother Jamar Clark, the youngest of her nine siblings, was shot and killed during an altercation with police on the city’s north side.
“Watching the video, I saw my brother’s face,” Roberson, who is Black, said as she broke down in tears. “The relationship that the Black community has with Minneapolis police is just to stay away. There is no trust. There is no rapport.”
Clark’s killing was something of an eruption of long-simmering tensions between the community and the police. Protesters camped outside of a precinct for 18 days and were dismayed when police officers with riot gear and pepper spray tore down their encampment at the direction of city leaders. Police union leaders were upset it had taken that long for officers to get the green light to clear out the demonstrators.
Nelson pointed to one factor that he said had helped shape the tension: Most police officers do not live within the city limits, he said, raising questions about how well officers reflect or understand the communities they patrol.
“The current police chief has been trying to repair the relationship,” Nelson said of Arradondo, who was sworn in three years ago after his predecessor was forced out in the wake of Ruszczyk’s killing. “He is the first one to make it his business to hold his officers accountable for inappropriate behavior. Him firing the four officers expeditiously is a big deal.”
On Wednesday, politicians spoke out against Floyd’s death. President Donald Trump called it a “very, very sad event,” and Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said it was “part of an ingrained, systemic cycle of injustice that still exists in this country.”
Floyd moved to Minneapolis about five years ago from Houston, his hometown. He was remembered in his 3rd Ward neighborhood as a star high school football and basketball player, and had told relatives that he found the Minnesota city to be a welcoming place.
“He was happy there,” said Tera Brown, a cousin who was raised with him. “He had made friends and had talked about training to become a truck driver.”
Those pleasant feelings stood in stark contrast to what his family witnessed on the video, filmed by a bystander, in which Floyd pleaded with officers, telling them several times that he could not breathe.
Another cousin, Shareeduh Tate, said she did not recognize Floyd the first time she saw the video but thought, “how horrible this was that a family’s loved one was murdered in the streets.”
Then she got a phone call that the man in the video was her cousin.
“First I was numb,” she said. “Then shocked, then hurt, then angry. It was painful to watch before I knew the person in the video was related to me. Now that I know this person is my flesh and blood, the pain is magnified a trillion times.”
Tate and many others, including Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis, have called on authorities to charge the officers involved with crimes.
About 1% of complaints against police officers that have been adjudicated since 2012 have resulted in disciplinary action, according to city records.
“The fact that these officers were being filmed by bystanders and still continued to engage in that conduct shows you everything about the culture of the Minneapolis Police Department,” said Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality. “They feel they’re immune to any kind of accountability. They feel they can get away with it.”
While politicians and activists in Minneapolis embrace the language of racial justice, some critics say they often fail to put those words into action.
There have been some hard-won police reforms, including a change to the use-of-force manual requiring that officers intervene when they see colleagues using excessive force.
One of the biggest challenges to reforming the department, analysts say, is the city’s powerful police union. It established its power in local politics in the 1970s, when Charles Stenvig, a former head of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, served three terms as mayor on a “law and order” platform.
Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the union, was accused in Arradondo’s lawsuit of calling a Black congressman who was Muslim a “terrorist” and of wearing a motorcycle jacket with a badge that said “white power.” Kroll did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Floyd was arrested and pinned to the ground in front of a building that is a community hub, with a corner store, a check cashing business, apartments and a mosque in the basement. A memorial popped up on the sidewalk with Black balloons and purple flowers.
Thomas Adams, born and raised in northeast Minneapolis, skipped a job interview to pay his respects Wednesday.
“When someone’s out cold like that, you stop,” said Adams, 37. “You don’t continue on. It’s so upsetting. I came down here to speak my piece.”