On May 26, I sent a text message to a good friend and former colleague back in Minneapolis. She was busy, she told me, covering the reaction to the death of a man in police custody the day before.
I immediately searched for the story and found the video of George Floyd dying beneath the knee of a police officer. I was shocked by the brazen nature of it, shocked by the sound of bystanders begging for the officers to stop. I was shocked, but I was not surprised. After all, this was Minneapolis and I had learned that this kind of thing happens there.
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Once I had started to process the shock, my next thought was that I recognised officer Derek Chauvin, the man who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. I had seen him before.
When he was identified as a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis police department, it confirmed what my memory had already told me – he had been there during the five years from 2002 to 2007 that I had covered the department as a young reporter on the police beat for the ABC Television station KSTP-TV.
Minneapolis is a beautiful, vibrant city, long considered a bastion of progressive politics. But brutality is deeply ingrained in the culture of the city’s police department. Through three police chiefs, one district attorney and many complaints of brutality, I covered the department day in, day out.
There is a long history of complaints against the Minneapolis police. In fact, Keith Ellison, the Minnesota attorney general and former US congressman, has been talking about the problems with the department for decades. He is now the lead prosecutor in the murder case against Chauvin and the aiding and abetting cases against the three other officers at the scene.
Like many other cases of police brutality against Black people in the US, Floyd’s death would have been buried if not for the fact that it was captured on video and then shared on social media platforms.
In fact, an attempted cover-up was already in progress hours before the first video of the incident went viral. Police sent out a press release titled: Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction. Of course, it failed to mention that the “medical incident” was a police officer’s knee on his neck. Thankfully, the mobile phone video corrected the record and exposed an extrajudicial killing.
That the police would have tried to cover it up did not surprise me. I learned during my time reporting on the department the lengths it would go to evade answering inconvenient questions.
Almost every story generated from the police beat becomes the lead story on the local evening news. I approached the beat like a print reporter – starting each day by going through the overnight police log. But unlike the print reporters, I was on the 10 o’clock news every night, so the police officers knew exactly who I was.
This did not make me popular with the department leadership, and the distrust between us was mutual.
I managed to secure sources within the Third Precinct, where all of the officers involved in the Floyd case worked. They fed me documents and information the department did not want to make public, but the department had its ways of trying to hinder reporting.
Seventeen years before Minneapolis police killed Floyd, I met Keith Ellison, then a civil rights lawyer and state politician, on a north Minneapolis street in 2003. He told me about one of his clients.
Stephen Porter, a 25-year old Black man, had accused two white Minneapolis police officers of sodomising him with the handle of a toilet plunger during an arrest. The Porter case was like most others: an accusation by a Black man against white police officers. But unlike in the Floyd case, there was no video or witnesses, and no social media to draw worldwide attention to his story.
Even an eight-month investigation by the US Justice Department failed to produce criminal charges against the white officers accused of abusing Porter.
After the case against the white officers was closed, the white police chief and white mayor of Minneapolis, RT Rybak, celebrated, with the mayor calling it “one of the happiest press conferences” he had ever attended when the results of the FBI investigation were announced.
Then Porter agreed to speak to me from prison, where he was serving three years for drug possession. I knew I would be criticised for putting him on the news so I asked him difficult questions, but he calmly answered them all.
The police officers had sexually assaulted him and the Minneapolis police department had covered it up, he said.
He knew there would be some people who would choose to doubt his credibility because of his criminal record. “I ain’t no angel, I’ve dealt drugs, I’ve [been to] prison before, but I would never come on television and lie about something like this,” he told me. I believed him and the interview aired on the 10 o’clock news.
If there were any doubts surrounding Porter’s credibility, there were damning facts about one of the accused officers. Jeffrey Jindra, who has since retired, racked up several complaints and lawsuits for excessive use of force over the years. In another highly publicised case, the city paid out $110,000 to a murder suspect who sued Jindra for brutality, alleging the veteran officer kicked him while handcuffed and broke his jaw in several places, requiring metal plates to be inserted, according to the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.
After the Porter case many other complaints by Black people against Minneapolis police officers landed on my desk. It was a constant drumbeat.
I started to see a pattern and realised the department had a cultural problem, but shining a light on it would not be easy. The department excelled at stonewalling, evading and deflecting the slightest suggestion of police brutality. And it was becoming increasingly intimidatory towards me.
A couple of years later, I covered the story of an unarmed Black teenager who had been shot and killed while running from the police. The department was furious at me for “making a big deal” out of it. Department leadership under chiefs William Mcmanus and Tim Dolan started to come after me; demanding retractions and apologies for what they insisted was unfair reporting.
I was not worried about losing my job, but I became concerned about my security after a captain in the department demanded I give up a source or be referred to the county attorney for prosecution.
My bosses valued aggressive reporting but did not much enjoy dealing with complaints about me. So they appeased the department by sending me on a training course about what police officers experience while placing suspects under arrest. It helped me to see that the police have a dangerous, high-pressured job and that there is no such thing as a routine stop.
I support the police and believe the vast majority are good. I have covered the St Paul police department, sheriffs offices in a number of Minnesota Counties, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. As a reporter in Austin, Texas and Hartford, Connecticut, I never heard about cases of police brutality. But Minneapolis is different. It is an outlier when it comes to brutality and it is endemic there.
The problem in Minneapolis runs deeper than just the police. During my time there the prosecutor was Amy Klobuchar, now a US senator being considered as a running mate for Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Klobuchar declined to bring charges against multiple officers involved in police killings and acts of brutality.
She repeatedly sent the cases to a grand jury to decide whether to criminally charge officers – and, in most cases, the grand jury decided not to.
On May 29 she said she now regrets that. “I think that was wrong now,” she said in an interview on MSNBC. “I think it would have been much better if I took the responsibility and looked at the cases and made the decision myself.”
Still, the bottom line is that it is very hard to get convictions against the police in the US. They have all kinds of protections, a powerful union and prosecutors are often highly reluctant to go after them. After all, they are normally on the same team.
George Floyd’s death made obvious the national despair over racism in American society. Minneapolis appeared to be righting the ship when it selected Medaria Arradondo as the city’s first black police chief. Arradondo was a rising star when I covered the department, so it was no surprise that he reached the top of the ranks.
Arradondo inherited a mess when he took over in 2017, but most recently he had been delivering on promises to repair relations with the African American community and reform police culture before Floyd was killed.
“I did not abandon this department then and I will not abandon this department now,” said Arradondo at an emotional news conference on Wednesday. “History is being written now and I am determined to make sure we are on the right side of history.”
Keith Ellison has been shouting to the rafters about police brutality in Minneapolis for 25 years. He is a hero of the African American community and should be seen in the same light by everyone in America. It is now up to him to get justice for George Floyd, and so many others.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.