The death of George Floyd in police custody last May sparked protests across the country for much of the summer. Nearly one year later, the trial of Derek Chauvin — the former Minneapolis police officer accused of killing Floyd — is coming to a close, leading to concerns that an acquittal, or a conviction on a lesser charge such as manslaughter, could result in another wave of protests.
Police departments across the country, such as those in Minneapolis, Philadelphia and New York, told Yahoo News they’ve been monitoring the trial and anticipating potential demonstrations after the verdict.
“In light of the ongoing trial of the murder of George Floyd, and the recent police-involved shooting of Daunte Wright, the Philadelphia Police Department continues to monitor for any developments relevant to Philadelphia,” a police spokesperson told Yahoo News in a statement.
“At this time, there are no known specific threats against our city. Still, PPD is prepared to activate with additional personnel to secure and patrol strategic locations throughout the city in the coming days/weeks if needed.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has already activated 1,000 National Guard troops in the city. In December, a review commissioned by the Philadelphia mayor’s office found that police “were simply not prepared” for the Floyd-related protests.
But some experts told Yahoo News that instead of bracing themselves for violence and rioting, police officers should be out in the community and establishing a safe space for protests ahead of the post-trial aftermath.
Lorenzo Boyd, a former sheriff’s deputy and the vice president for diversity and inclusion at the University of New Haven, told Yahoo News that police should “try to build a bond” with community groups in advance of a verdict. Law enforcement agencies, he said, should “have their people out in the crowd, talking to community leaders, talking to church leaders, talking to civic groups — trying to get them to understand that they also didn’t agree with what Chauvin did.”
Chauvin is being tried on charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The verdict looms in the shadow of the death of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man killed by police during a traffic stop in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center earlier this month. The former officer charged in that case, 26-year veteran Kim Potter, was arrested last Wednesday for second-degree manslaughter.
Most of the demonstrations against police brutality after Floyd’s death last year were peaceful, although some turned violent, resulting in looted businesses, rioting and injured bystanders and police. In one highly publicized incident, David Dorn, a 77-year-old former police captain, was shot to death in St. Louis as he looked to protect a friend’s pawn shop from violent protesters.
But demonstrators argued that much of the escalation came at the hands of police. In New York, police were caught on video driving vehicles into protesters in the days following Floyd’s death. Police in Philadelphia tear-gassed protesters to such a degree that they earned a rebuke from the United Nations and numerous lawsuits. In Minneapolis, police were caught on video firing paint rounds at residents who were on their porch. Across the country, at least eight people were blinded by “nonlethal” crowd control measures.
A review of police departments’ reports on their handling of the protests by the New York Times found “a damning indictment of police forces that were poorly trained, heavily militarized and stunningly unprepared for the possibility that large numbers of people would surge into the streets, moved by the graphic images of Floyd’s death under a police officer’s knee.”
The Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, and the police response to it, also hangs over discussions of how police should interact with protesters following a verdict in the Chauvin case. In the aftermath of the insurrection, many argued that the Capitol Police would have reacted more violently if the rioters had mostly been people of color or had been protesting for social justice.
"No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesters yesterday that they wouldn't have been treated very differently than the mob that stormed the Capitol,” then-President-elect Joe Biden said at the time. "We all know that's true — and it's unacceptable."
Boyd said such “differential enforcement ... has to stop.”
“Because when we see unarmed protesters getting gassed and pepper-sprayed and [having] rubber bullets shot at them, but we see vigilantes with long guns taking over a state capitol or vigilantes take over the national Capitol and [police] do nothing.”
Minneapolis-area law enforcement agencies said they have been planning and coordinating their response to the trial for months under a program they're calling Operation Safety Net. But Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington admitted, “Our plans shifted when Mr. Wright was killed in Brooklyn Center and protests broke out there.”
“Over the past several months, we have been planning for every aspect of this trial,” wrote Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson in a Star Tribune op-ed in March. “The planning process has included a thorough review of last summer's unrest here and across the country to determine what we can do better — including talking to community members.”
He continued: “Law enforcement will be under an intense microscope as we work hard to preserve the First Amendment rights of those who wish to protest, while, at the same time, fulfilling our mission of protecting property, ensuring public safety and guaranteeing the sanctity of the judicial process.”
Despite promises of a refined approach, Minnesota police are under fire for their treatment of journalists during the protests that followed Wright's death. Law enforcement is accused of macing journalists, throwing them to the ground and zip-tying them. One Star Tribune videographer said police had broken his finger last week by shooting rubber bullets at him. CNN said that producer Carolyn Sung was taken into custody as officers asked her, "Do you speak English?"
"She was patted down and searched by a female officer who put her hands down Sung's pants and in her bra, fingerprinted, electronically body-scanned, and ordered to strip and put on an orange uniform before attorneys working on her behalf were able to locate her and secure her release, a process that took more than two hours," claimed attorney Leita Walker, representing a number of media organizations, in a letter to Gov. Tim Walz and other public safety officials.
“I think we all need to recognize the assault on media across the world and even in our country over the last few years is chilling,” Walz said in an interview Sunday. “We cannot function as a democracy if they’re not there.”
Additionally, Minneapolis Public Schools announced it would shift to distance learning Wednesday through Friday in anticipation of the Chauvin verdict.
Various police departments are preparing for the verdict and any protests that may follow. NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said his department had been planning its response for some time.
“You have to be prepared for any and all eventuality — we think we are prepared; we’re just asking anyone who may come out to voice their concerns over this trial, let’s just work together, do it peacefully [with] no property damage, and we’ll get all through it together,” Shea said on April 14.
He also said NYPD officers had been working to build relationships with activists ahead of any possible protests.
“I think we all know that some protesters just don’t want to cooperate, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still attempt. We’ve done a lot behind the scenes in trying to work with members of the clergy, leaders, elected officials, grassroots organizations, and just again the message is, we’re here to facilitate protests, and I think we’re in good shape.”
Tensions are even higher in Chicago, where disturbing footage was released last week showing the March 29 police-shooting death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo. City officials initially said Adam was holding a gun, but the footage appeared to show him with his hands up when police fired on him in what was initially called an “armed confrontation.”
“The Chicago Police Department and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) are closely monitoring activity related to the trial in Minneapolis,” the CPD said in a statement to Yahoo News. “We continue to work with other City departments to have the appropriate resources and staffing levels in place to ensure public safety citywide.”
Delores Jones-Brown, an expert on police-community relations and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, told Yahoo News that the Chauvin case could be an opportunity for police to show they support people’s right to peacefully protest.
“[People are] feeling exhausted and traumatized by the fact that these incidents keep occurring,” Jones-Brown said. “I think the very wrong thing to do would be [for] police to show brute force again, because people have already been victimized. So they need to get out ahead of it and engage with the public now.”
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