Commentary

Chauvin is a rotten apple in a decaying barrel

April 13, 2021 12:01 am

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testified in the murder trial of former officer Derek Chauvin on April 5, 2021. (Minnesota Reformer)

We’re supposed to be thrilled that the Minneapolis Police Department has smashed the blue wall of silence to get former officer Derek Chauvin convicted of the murder of George Floyd.

The commander in charge of the field training program and another who leads the homicide unit condemned Chauvin’s actions on the evening of Memorial Day, 2020. Chauvin broke department policy and its “ethics or values,” as Chief Medaria Arradondo put it.

The national media fawned over Arradondo.

“His testimony against his own officer, which cannot have been easy, gave me faith in humanity,” tweeted CNN’s Ana Navaro-Cardenas. “It’s a reminder there are good people and bad people. Chief Arredondo (sic) is one of the good ones.”

Let’s get real for a minute. Arradondo and MPD have abandoned Chauvin because they have no choice. Arradondo is fighting for the department’s survival in the face of a hostile City Council, which is going to the voters with a ballot initiative that would end mayoral control of the department and create a new agency.

Even the notoriously “my country right or wrong” Minneapolis police union has left Chauvin out in the cold.

(A letter circulated among MPD officers last June condemning Chauvin is probably more telling about attitudes among the rank-and-file. Head of homicide Lt. Richard Zimmerman was one of just 14 who signed it.)

Arradondo and Mayor Jacob Frey cite a record of what might be called piecemeal reform, spurred in part by a consent decree with the state Department of Human Rights: They banned chokeholds and neck restraints; mandated that officers intervene if they see improper use of force; and prohibited officers who use deadly force from reviewing body camera footage before they write their initial report, among other changes.

Arradondo says he’s trying to transform the department, and I wish him luck.

We should have no illusions, however: As civil rights activist Nekima Levy Armstrong told the Spokesman-Recorder, “We haven’t seen a knee on somebody’s neck that killed them, but there have been knees on necks before.”

Chauvin wasn’t some aberration they’d been trying to fire for years. He was a field training officer, selected to help rookies develop into professionals. As Libor Jany reported in a Star Tribune article about MPD’s training officers, Chauvin was a mentor to one of the other officers at the scene, J. Alexander Kueng, who referred to Chauvin as “sir.”

Officer Thomas Lane, working his fourth day on the job, asked Chauvin whether Floyd should be repositioned as they pinned him to the ground, but Chauvin told him to stay put.

Prosecutors unsuccessfully tried to introduce body camera footage of a separate incident in 2017, when Chauvin hit a 14-year-old boy in the head with a flashlight twice before kneeling on his back for 17 minutes. The boy said he couldn’t breathe.

Even though there is body camera footage, we would never have known about that incident if Floyd hadn’t died under Chauvin’s knee, prompting a review of his previous conduct. He wasn’t disciplined for the incident.

In addition to the grim details arising from the trial, we learned a bit more about MPD’s culture last week from Abby Honold, a rape survivor who became a national advocate after the department’s shoddy handling of her 2014 case. It’s fair to point out this was before Arradondo became chief, but her experience is instructive about department mores. She tweeted last week that she saw a civil attorney about suing the police department, which she suspects was leaked to MPD.

Here’s what happened next:

“For months, I was followed….They sat outside my apartment…Once, I ran into a Minneapolis officer who I had never met. They told me to ‘stay safe out there’ with a wink. Every time I saw one of them behind me, my hands would be shaking on my steering wheel because I was so scared of what they might do to me if I got pulled over.”

Honold’s name may sound familiar because she was a source for the Star Tribune’s reporting on the department’s failure to investigate and arrest rapists.

The head of the unit at the time of Honold’s rape investigation was Mike Sauro, whose record was notorious. He led a botched raid that killed an elderly Black couple. His beating of a college student in the back of a bar led to a then-record $1 million settlement.

Naturally, they put him in charge of an entire unit.

More recently, the whole world saw an MPD officer spray protesters with mace from the driver’s window of a squad car for no discernible reason. That was just one of many incidents of indiscriminate violence inflicted on demonstrators and journalists, several of whom suffered serious injuries, including partial blindness. City taxpayers will be footing the bill for settlements that will eventually stretch into the millions.

And what discipline has been imposed on officers? None. The department is required to post disciplinary decisions to the city’s website as soon as they are finalized. There aren’t any concerning the civil unrest, unless you count the formal reprimand of a female officer for speaking anonymously to a reporter — about the department’s toxic culture — in the wake of Floyd’s death.

An email to police spokesman John Elder with a list of questions was not returned.

Even in the unlikely scenario in which police investigate their own for these incidents, we can guess how it would turn out. As Max Nesterak and Tony Webster reported in the Reformer last year, over the past decade, MPD has spent an average of 539 days resolving a case from the time it’s opened.

If Arradondo wanted to fix this situation, he was well positioned to: Before he was chief he did a stint as commander of the internal affairs unit.

In addition to the feckless delays, department leaders have signed off on positive performance reviews for problem officers, which later bolsters their defense in arbitration in the rare instances when they are disciplined.

So if Chauvin is convicted, go ahead and say thanks to MPD brass for helping make it happen. But just remember from whence Chauvin came.

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is editor-in-chief of the Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and toddler son.

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