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A Justice Dept. Skeptical of Police Abuse Cases Vows to Investigate Floyd Death


Critics pointed to the president’s and the attorney general’s full-throated support for the police and the department’s inaction on systemic policing issues.
Attorney General William P. Barr on Friday labeled the images of the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis whom a white police officer knelt on for nearly nine minutes, as “harrowing” and “deeply disturbing” and vowed that the federal investigation into his death would proceed quickly.
“I am confident justice will be served,” Mr. Barr said in a statement as protesters across the country condemned the actions of the officer, Derek Chauvin, who was charged Friday by the local authorities with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
But the Trump administration’s years of inaction on police violence and President Trump’s embrace of law enforcement have made civil rights advocates wary of the Justice Department’s involvement in the Floyd case. The administration has largely dismantled police oversight efforts, curbing the use of federal consent decrees to overhaul local police departments. Mr. Barr has said that communities that criticize law enforcement may not deserve police protection, and Mr. Trump has encouraged officers not to be “too nice” in handling suspects.
Advocates for police overhaul said in interviews on Friday that they were in a difficult position: After denouncing the federal government’s retreat from police accountability — and civil rights enforcement more broadly — they are now wary of its intentions.
“Our confidence in a federal intervention in cases like this is wholly dependent on the track record of the administration that is stepping in,” said Derrick Johnson, the president of the N. A. C. P. “This administration lacks credibility when it comes to addressing issues of justice, fairness and race.”
Mr. Barr said that any federal charges would be “based on the law and facts,” and that they would not come until after local charging decisions.
To bring federal civil rights charges in the Floyd case, prosecutors have to meet a difficult bar: proving that Mr. Chauvin intended to violate Mr. Floyd’s civil rights and acted on that wish, Mr. Johnson said. Prosecutors are often reluctant to bring such cases because they are so difficult to win.
“We are confronted with the stark reality this family may not see justice, even with the prevailing evidence in broad daylight from multiple camera views that there was no resisting, no physical provocation, that he was subdued and cuffed, that he said he can’t breathe, and that blood was coming out of mouth,” Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Barr’s announcement suggested no broader investigation into possible abuses in the Minneapolis Police Department, a move that local activists have demanded. Congressional Democrats also asked the Justice Department this week to open an investigation into the police. The city has a history of accusations of police abuse, and in 2017, an officer in a Minneapolis suburb was found not guilty of manslaughter in the death of Philando Castile, a black motorist.

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