Chauvin Trial Again Casts Spotlight on Minneapolis Police Department’s Training Program
A mural of George Floyd shown at the intersection of 38th St. and Chicago Ave. on March 31, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Over his 19 years with the Minneapolis Police Department, Derek Chauvin, the now-fired officer on trial in the death of George Floyd, racked up 17 misconduct complaints and was involved in four on-duty shootings or other fatal encounters.
Yet despite an ever-thickening personnel file, Chauvin continued to serve as a field training officer, or FTO, even mentoring one of the two rookie cops who first interacted with Floyd outside of a South Side convenience store last May. In body camera footage, some of which was played during testimony last week, that officer, J. Alexander Kueng, referred to Chauvin as “sir.” The other officer, Thomas Lane, followed Chauvin’s direction to stay put after he asked whether Floyd should be repositioned as they pinned him to the ground before he lost consciousness and died.
Revelations about Chauvin’s history and his conduct on the day Floyd died have drawn further scrutiny of his training role even though his superiors were aware of his at-times questionable decisionmaking.
Former Minneapolis police officials said in interviews that the problem is that there are no hard and fast rules about who can be a training officer. Those selected for the duty have to complete a week of training, officials say, but then tend to stay in those jobs for years with little oversight and less accountability. Several new hires have quit the force in recent months because they could not take the harassment they endured from their training officers, according to a department source knowledgeable about the departures.
Over the past decade, only four Minneapolis officers have been removed as trainers because they were unfit, according to department records. Three officers were stripped of their training duties in 2018 — two for disciplinary reasons and another in 2014 who was deemed a “Poor Instructor.”
Chauvin faces murder and manslaughter charges for kneeling on the neck of Floyd, whose death sparked nationwide protests and calls for police reform — or in some cases abolishment — and a deeper look at use-of-force training nationwide.
The trial wrapped up its first week of testimony on Friday, with longtime Minneapolis police Lt. Rick Zimmerman testifying that the level of force used by Chauvin on Floyd was “totally unnecessary” and dangerous. The two new officers who held Floyd’s back and legs, Kueng and Lane, and a third officer who stood guard, Tou Thao, have each been charged with aiding and abetting murder.
Kueng and Lane had been working unsupervised for less than a week. Chauvin was among the rotation of senior officers whom Kueng was assigned to shadow during his probationary period.
After graduating from the police academy, new hires usually spend six to seven months riding along with more experienced officers to supplement what they learned in the classroom about proper use of force and other aspects of police work. In practice, though, months of academy lessons can be undone by jaded veterans — “salty dogs” in Minneapolis police parlance — who set an example with their unnecessarily aggressive behavior.
Former Minneapolis Assistant Police Chief Kris Arneson said that department officials tried to resolve those contradictions by recruiting the “best” people from each precinct — “they couldn’t have Internal Affairs records, they had to be positive” — to teach new recruits the right way to police.
“Most FTOs do follow guidelines and policies because they have an interest in the department continuing to professionalize and having good cops out there,” she said. “But, are there people who are not following those guidelines? Absolutely, and that’s where you have to have strong supervision and people who are willing to come forward and say ‘This is what’s happening and we can’t let it fester anymore.’ ”
Retired Minneapolis police officer Scott Dahlquist said selecting the best officers for field training creates a predicament, in that he recalls it was “not a desirable assignment.”
“They would do it if they were asked, but I think most people didn’t take any pride or joy in it,” said Dahlquist, who retired in 2014. “I think any cop will tell you: ‘I had some really great FTOs and I had some really bad ones, who were in it for the pay … or they did it for the power trip.”
A former police trainee sued the department last year, claiming that he was singled out for harassment by his training officers because of his age and Japanese heritage. In the suit, the trainee, Andrew Arashiba, who was fired from the department in October 2017, accused several of his training officers of creating a hostile work environment by routinely making disparaging comments about his age and his job performance, including one time in which a training officer allegedly chastised him for refusing to slap a drunk man during an arrest in north Minneapolis, saying, “You missed a free slap.”
Critics have blamed the training program for fostering a culture of aggressive policing that stretches back decades.
Retired Minneapolis Deputy Chief Greg Hestness wondered how much of Lane and Kueng’s trainers may have rubbed off on the rookie officers, saying he was struck by how quickly their arrest of Floyd over a fake $20 bill escalated into Lane yelling at Floyd to “show me your [expletive] hands!”
“Where does that come from on Day 4?” he asked.
“A really cynical but deserving question is would Chauvin have knelt on him for that long if he wasn’t training the officers at that time?” said Michael Friedman, a former executive director of the Legal Rights Center, saying it seemed Chauvin was “trying to demonstrate how to control a person.”
Gerald Moore, a retired 30-plus-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department, said that because rookie officers must pass regular evaluations before they can go out on their own, it can create unhealthy power dynamics with their training officers.
To some, the larger problem is a tendency of some officers not to question and intervene when a colleague — particularly a senior officer — uses excessive force. After Floyd’s death, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced a stricter “duty to intervene” policy that says officers who witness another officer “use any prohibited force, or inappropriate or unreasonable force” must attempt to “safely intervene by verbal and physical means.”
For years, groups like Communities United Against Police Brutality have pushed for the department to adopt a peer intervention training program developed by the New Orleans Police Department that is based on the premise that there is a tendency for officers not to intervene when they see a colleague engage in misconduct. The program, called Ethical Policing Is Courageous, or EPIC , is built on the premise that intervention must be taught through training and role-playing and must be continually reinforced through more training to the point that it infuses the departmental culture.
St. Paul police participate in the training , but Minneapolis has not. The debate over police training has been brewing in Minneapolis in recent years after a series of high-profile on-duty killings of civilians. In 2019, Mayor Jacob Frey announced the nation’s first-ever ban on “warrior-style” and “fear-based” training. The move was met with resistance from the Minneapolis Police Federation — the union representing rank-and-file officers, which announced that it would offer the popular training free for any officer who wants it.
A recent report by the Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing found that most U.S. police training lacks focus, is too short, uses ineffective teaching methods and is out of touch with both community safety priorities and current research about what works to minimize bias and use of force.
The report also found that most officers receive an average of six months of training, far less than is required of their counterparts in other developed countries, and that standards vary widely among states. Training requirements for officers are on par with those for professions that require little human interaction, such as pest control and water-well drilling.
The study’s authors, which included law enforcement, civil rights and community leaders, made a number of recommendations and called on the federal government to adopt national standards to assure appropriate training for all officers.
Moore, a former police commander, said that for as long as he can remember the department took “basically” anyone who had a certain amount of experience. Where in some cities, like Los Angeles, field training officers are an appointed position that comes with a higher salary, Minneapolis only offers extra overtime, he said. He added that while juggling the twin demands of teaching and responding to 911 calls, even good training officers can sometimes burn out.
“A lot of good people who’d make good FTOs don’t want to do it, and so you end up getting the people that you’ve got, and sometimes that’s not the best.” he said.
This story is part of a collaboration with the Star Tribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.