Policing the Police in Minnesota


RANEY ARONSON: Closing arguments begin today in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. 


For about two weeks a jury has heard arguments from the prosecution and defense around Chauvin’s culpability in the killing of George Floyd last May.


Then last week, another police killing of an unarmed Black man, Daunte Wright.


ARCHIVE: As the trial of Derek Chauvin went into a third week of testimony in Minneapolis today, a police killing of a Black man in a neighboring community has once again left the region reeling...Breaking news taking place right now Brooklyn Center, police have ordered at least two dispersal orders to the crowd that's gathered in Brooklyn Center right now, those folks are there because they're demonstrating against the police shooting of Daunte Wright.


ARONSON: FRONTLINE has been closely following the developments through the reporting of our longtime collaborator writer and historian, Jelani Cobb.


COBB: It seems too outlandish that in the middle of the Derek Chauvin trial, there would be another incident of police use of force that resulted in the death of an unarmed African American.


ARONSON: I'm Raney Aronson and this is the Frontline Dispatch.

Jelani, thanks for coming on the Dispatch.


COBB: Thank you.


ARONSON: I was hoping you could take us back to last Sunday. So I know you're in Minneapolis right now to cover the Derek Chauvin trial. But tell me what happens when you hear, of course about Daunte Wright.


COBB: So I had been here since Thursday, and you know, mainly running back and forth between the courthouse and the area where George Floyd died, which has been renamed George Floyd square, and interviewing community activists. And Sunday, I was going back and forth with one activist in particular about how we could connect. And in the middle of it, he sent me this link, which was a live stream from Brooklyn Center. And I was confused by it, because I was like, "What am I watching?" And what really gave me a sense of foreboding is that having covered very many of the stories at this point, there's a particular arc that has become fairly familiar. And that is that when these incidents first happen, there's usually a small knot of people, family members, maybe some community activists, you know, a handful of media, and the incident grows from there. But when I got to the police station, this was maybe four or five hours after Wright had been shot. And there were about 400 people there already. 




COBB: And the situation was really tense. And as you might already suspect, you know, the area, of the Twin Cities area has been on edge for the duration of the trial. And there are people who are worried that a Chauvin acquittal would culminate in more violence. And that presumption proved to be very naive, because before we ever got to a verdict on Chauvin, we were grappling with this other issue.


ARONSON: Right. I mean, that that's what is shocking, as you said is it's almost unbelievable that this would happen at the same time. So you wrote about the demonstrations and the gatherings that were happening in the New Yorker. What were you seeing in the days after Sunday?


COBB: So there were a couple of things that were happening. On the one hand, the lawyers in the Chauvin trial, were concerned about what impact this would have. As you may have heard, one of the jurors lives in Brooklyn Center. They were worried that this might be prejudicial. There was a motion to sequester the jury that was denied. And that was predictable given that the you know, the climate was so completely intensified by the fact that you know, people are supposed to evaluate evidence in this trial while everywhere they turn this is going on.


ARCHIVE: Minnesota's governor has deployed the National Guard after Black Lives Matter protesters hit the streets in his state...Tensions are already high in the city where the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin charged in the death of George Floyd enters its third week...Hundreds taking to the streets Sunday night clashing with police, the National Guard was also on the scene, the situation turned violent...


COBB: One of the things that you couldn't escape was that there was National Guard everywhere. When I was driving to my hotel, there was this long line of National Guard vehicles. And so the idea that the jury could be completely removed from what was going on, or they could somehow be hermetically sealed off from the dynamics here, that that just isn't true. And at the same time, it came to be that Benjamin Crump, the civil attorney, who was representing the Floyd family, is also representing the Wright family. And there was a very emotional press conference that both families held on the lawn of the Hennepin County Courthouse. And that - one of the most heartbreaking things that happened and this was behind the scenes, was that members of the Floyd family were counseling members of the Wright family about how this would go and what they needed to be prepared for and how to grapple with the situation. And that's a terrible body of knowledge to possess.


ARONSON: I saw that press conference.


ARCHIVE:  Now with George Floyd's family standing right at their shoulders, we have the family of Daunte Wright? We have his mother, Katie Wright. His father... 


ARONSON: How are you feeling watching this?


COBB: I think it's shocking. And it's really, it's still unbelievable. And I did in kind of see his mother and his two-year-old, 18-month-old son, actually, at the press conference, and that was very hard because you know, 18-months-old, he will not remember his father likely. And, you know, I have 18 month old twins, I think the same thing about them. So obviously, I was thinking about them. And so that - all of that together, has made this a really, kind of, heavy story to cover.


ARONSON: I wondered as you were watching this happen, how do you feel if you look back to Minneapolis, and of course, Ferguson and other stories that you've been covering? Do you feel there's anything in this that feels different? Or do you feel that this is a cycle that's continuing?


COBB: I think it's both actually. And I don't mean that as a dodge. But what I mean is that these, these things have happened forever. You know, when my parents both of whom, came to the north as part of the great migration from Alabama and Georgia. The thing that they learned about New York was that the police were not that different from the places that they had left. And they talked to me about that. You know, my father talked to me about things that he experienced as a young man coming to New York, and this is back in the 1940s. And so we've had these concerns for a long time. But I think what's different is that there seems to be an increasing body of knowledge about how to respond to them. That you know, communities are more savvy about pressuring for charges and pressuring for charges quickly.


ARCHIVE: Just within the last few minutes we have heard from the county attorney here in this area, and it is official second degree manslaughter charges coming against former officer Kim Potter, that 26 year veteran of the force, who submitted her resignation yesterday, following the Sunday shooting death of 20-year-old Daunte Wright. 


COBB: You now hear things like you're hearing from the activists in Brooklyn Center, about wanting an independent prosecutor that, you know, not thinking that the local hierarchy can handle this case, which is very vocally denied by the local prosecutor who believes he's perfectly capable of bringing charges and of prosecuting this case. And so, you know, people understand how to handle these situations in a way, I think it's more sophisticated than previously.


ARONSON: We'll be right back. 


ARONSON: Let's go to the Chauvin trial, I know you are out there to be covering that. What stood out to you?


COBB: I think it's interesting that there's been an uncharacteristically high degree of faith in the prosecution's case. When I talked with members of the Floyd family, they expressed satisfaction with the case that the prosecutors had brought, and people outside of that, you know, have as well, it was a kind of one two combination. They brought the community members, for the most part in the first week, people who had witnessed George Floyd's death, people who had been close to him in life, and it really established the emotional and social impact of his death. And then was just a really strong series of experts established that the arguments, the defense arguments, that George Floyd died as a result of a drug overdose or that he died as a result of heart failure, or any of the alternate explanations for his death just didn't seem to hold water.  


ARONSON: Interesting. I also wondered when you're watching this are you feeling surprised that there's police who are actually testifying that this was not okay?


COBB: Yes and no. So there's the famed blue wall of silence. And in most of these cases, and we can kind of walk through them, most of the similar cases that there is no conviction, or in many cases, there's no indictment. Police are generally reluctant to testify against each other. Probably the most egregious local example was Philando Castile, who was shot in a neighboring suburb Falcon Heights, which is, you know, right next to Minneapolis. And, you know, he informed the police officer that he was a licensed gun holder and the officers shot him anyway in front of his girlfriend and his girlfriend's daughter. That officer, Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges. What's different is that the future of the city is hanging in the balance. I think everyone here knows that there will be significant violence if Derek Chauvin is not convicted. And that's one part of it. But the other part of it, that has to be said, is that - do you really want that to be the bar? Does it take a nine minute and 29 second asphyxiation of a handcuffed person to say, "Alright, this is the line where we'll say that this person did something wrong."


ARONSON: Right, I guess that goes to one of my questions is can policing be any different? And I want you to talk a little bit about that because obviously, this is such an egregious case. But in general, you've been asking that question, because it happens over and over again. 


COBB: Yeah. I mean, I can tell you what people here are saying and then I'll say kind of what my, what I've taken from it. That there still mired very much in the arguments about where the police should go from here. In the aftermath of George Floyd's death, the City Council famously voted to disband the Minneapolis Police Department.


ARCHIVE: Our commitment is to end our city's toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it, and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe...


COBB: Which couldn't happen, because the city charter established that there had to be a police department. And there's now an activist movement, which has gotten enough signatures, to put it on the ballot, to make sure that there's a referendum about whether the city charter should be changed to say that you don't have to have a police department. And while that sounds a bit strange, or alarming, to say that we don’t have a police department, what they're really interested in doing I think is reimagining what public safety looks like. So it's not that there would be no one responsible for responding to crime, is just wondering if whether the current system we have for doing it is the way that it should be done. And so that's one side. On the other side of it, you have the Police Chief Medaria Arradondo who very much believes that reform can happen. And there are people who back that proposition politically as well, the idea that reform is important, but you shouldn't completely scrap the police department and start again from scratch. And so those are the two kind of camps that are fighting it out here. And that was going on before the trial, and will likely continue to go on after the trial is resolved. But I do think that it is possible for policing to be different. I just don't know that we have the will, or the open mindedness to start, again, to question how we have gone about the way that we've done things. 


ARONSON: One of the things I was thinking about in that regard is things are so heightened right now - when you look at this just in historical perspectives, because you're also a historian, where do you see this moment and race in America? What do you see that's significant about this moment?


COBB: What I think is fascinating about this is that this is a deeply historical problem, but we have reached a point where it could no longer be punted. Or even going back to the 1970s Richard Pryor has a joke, where he talks about all of the police brutality and then kind of mockingly says that, you know, there's a white guy, who was saying, "Oh, all those guys were resisting arrest." You know, it was a source of humor, even back then. But now we have these videos that have emerged. And it becomes increasingly difficult to say, at least, with a straight face, that white people would have been killed in many of the circumstances in which we see African Americans, other people of color, being killed by police. And so I think that will be the kind of turning point in history. And so it now fundamentally becomes a point of conscience.


ARONSON: It becomes a point of conscience because you can see it, it's not a he said, she said situation.


COBB: Right. And, you know, the, the, even the legacy of the videos as a kind of mixed record, the original video incident was Rodney King in 1992. And that was captured on, you know, the old camcorders that people had. And it was possible for a defense attorney to convince a jury of 12 presumably conscientious citizens, that even as Rodney King was being beaten senseless, that he continued to pose a threat to multiple police officers. So if we have this genre, which is now a genre of video, where we can see the things that have happened, and it doesn't generate any kind of different response, then it simply becomes an indictment I think of our own consciences. 


ARONSON: You're a professor at Columbia, in journalism. And I've been thinking deeply about something that you and I have spoken about now for years, which is journalism in the wake of incidents like this, and how my perception is at least that it's changing. I want to know yours, though. Are you seeing a change in journalism?


COBB: Yeah, I think that there's, there's a conversation happening. One of the things that I think has happened is that these cases, have forced journalists to question something that was always a bad habit, which was presuming that the police reports or that the official statements of the bureaucracies associated with these incidents could be relied upon as the basic narrative, the most basic version of the story. And that was always a very questionable practice. But now we can see things like in the death of George Floyd, that initial report made no mention of Derek Chauvin kneeling on him for that period of time. In the initial statement, that was put out by the Brooklyn Center Police Department it was at variance what we later saw on the body cam footage.


ARONSON: Jelani back to the Chauvin trial, where do you see this going? Even in discussion terms?


COBB: Since I got here, I have thought about the fact that juries are reluctant to convict police officers, and reluctant to indict police officers. They're even more reluctant when they're these cases that have officers of different races, differing racial backgrounds. And at the same time, we have this overwhelming volume of evidence that what Derek Chauvin did was wrong. And I thought that there was probably a high likelihood that there would be a hung jury. Then when I was talking with people in the community, one of the things that I heard a lot was that they didn't think that he would get off scot free but they thought whatever the lowest possible set of convictions were was what he might get. And I think there's probably some validity to that.


ARONSON: Thanks for coming on the Dispatch, Jelani. 


COBB: Thank you. 


ARONSON: Our podcast team includes Max Green, James Edwards, Lucie Sullivan, and Cassie McGrath. 


Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. 


Sarah Childress is our series senior editor. 


Frank Koughan is senior producer. 


Andrew Metz is our managing editor.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 


Original music in this episode by Stellwagen Symphonette. 


The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at GBH and powered by PRX. 


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