Updated: Jan 31, 2022
An ongoing federal trial seeks to hold ex-Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao responsible for not stopping George Floyd’s murder. It could strike a blow against long-standing police culture that breeds reluctance to rein in fellow officers, the Associated Press reports. The circumstances of Floyd’s death — pinned under officer Derek Chauvin’s knee for more than nine minutes, recorded from multiple camera angles — may help prosecutors clear the bar for conviction on a charge that’s rarely brought, because it can be difficult to prove. “This sends a real message to counterbalance that very strong cultural set of influences in policing that often prevent an officer from stepping forward and reporting or stopping misconduct,” said Jonathan Smith, former chief of the DOJ division that oversees police civil rights inquiries.
The federal charges require prosecutors to prove the ex-officers willfully deprived Floyd of his constitutional
rights — meaning that they knew what they were doing was wrong and still went ahead. Police departments and local prosecutors have their own means to punish officers who don’t intervene. High-profile examples show how risky it is for officers who do intervene or who cooperate with investigations of fellow officers. In Chicago, a key police witness against three Chicago officers charged with trying to cover up the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald testified that fellow officers called her a “rat.” In Florida last year, an officer with less than three years experience pulled a sergeant by his belt away from a handcuffed suspect, apparently afraid he was about to pepper spray the man. The sergeant, a 21-year veteran, grabbed the officer, placing his hand against her throat. In Buffalo, officer Cariol Horne was fired in 2008 after an arbitration process ruled that she had put other officers at risk when she stopped a fellow officer whose arm was around a handcuffed suspect’s neck. Since mid-2020, 21 of the 100 largest police departments adopted policies on officers’ duty to intervene and 12 state legislatures have approved similar laws, says the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Policing.