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Federal charges for 4 former officers involved in the death of George Floyd

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A federal grand jury has indicted Derek Chauvin and three other former Minneapolis police officers on charges of willfully violating George Floyd's civil rights during the arrest which led to his death. Kirk Burkhalter. a professor of law at New York Law School and former NYPD detective, joins CBSN to discuss the case.

Video Transcript

TANYA RIVERO: A federal grand jury has indicted Derek Chauvin along with three other former Minneapolis police officers for their roles in the death of George Floyd. The three-count indictment was unsealed in the Minneapolis courtroom today. The defendants are charged with willfully violating Mr. Floyd's civil rights during the arrest and use of excessive force.

Two of the officers face an additional count for failing to intervene while Derek Chauvin used unreasonable force. Three of the defendants appeared via video conference for an initial hearing this morning. Chauvin, who was convicted of murder last month in state court, was not in attendance. He is also charged in a second indictment for using an illegal neck restraint on a minor back in 2017.

Kirk Burkhalter joins me now. He's a professor of law at New York Law School and a former NYPD detective. Professor Burkhalter, thank you for joining us. So, as you know, this three-count indictment was unsealed this morning. What more can you tell us about the charges these former officers are facing?

KIRK BURKHALTER: So broadly speaking, they're being charged with violating George Floyd's Fourth Amendment rights under the color of law. What this means is that they were acting as police officers, acting with authority of law, and that they willfully, willfully violated George Floyd's right to an unreasonable seizure, this period of being held on the ground with the knee on the neck for the 9 and 1/2 minutes. The other officers, outside of Derek Chauvin, are-- were indicted for basically assisting or not doing anything, not stopping Derek Chauvin. And finally, there's a third count of this failure to render medical aid. And this could potentially, potentially carry basically a life sentence for the defendants.

TANYA RIVERO: So serious charges they are facing. Now Professor, this indictment is separate from the criminal charges these four officers also face in the death of George Floyd. The trial of the three other officers is set to begin in August. What do you believe made federal prosecutors feel the need to add these additional indict-- this additional indictment on these officers on a federal level? And do you believe it will have any impact on the upcoming criminal trial?

KIRK BURKHALTER: Sure. Well, this is a message from the Justice Department, and I guess the current administration, on the lack of tolerance for this form of conduct by our police. And we've seen this with the Justice Department investigations into policing in Minnesota. And I think it's a rather bold step to take against these police officers and given the climate and given the international climate. After all, the UN is now looking at human rights violations with regards to policing in the United States. So I think it was a very important step, and the Justice Department was motivated by the heinous nature of what we have seen.

As far as the criminal trial is concerned, I could certainly see some motivation for the three remaining officers to accept some form of plea agreement, perhaps testify against Derek Chauvin during his federal trial. I think that given the gravity of the charges, federally speaking, those three defendants will be highly motivated. The federal government is likely to kind of step back and wait for the criminal trial to proceed, given that the prosecutors and the federal government are really not in an adversarial position here.

TANYA RIVERO: Now, former officers Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng are charged with willfully failing to intervene-- this is something you pointed out earlier-- and not stopping Chauvin from using excessive force. Why are the charges not the same for all the officers across the board because, as we know, the-- none of the officers stopped Chauvin?

KIRK BURKHALTER: Well, if you look at perhaps-- and this is somewhat speculation, if you look at the proximity of those two officers to Derek Chauvin when he was committing this act, if you recall, Thao was standing closer to the sidewalk and basically with his back towards Chauvin, even though he knew what was going on by watching the crowd. So they were right there.

They were next to Derek Chauvin and within arm's reach and fully capable-- I'm sure the prosecution, the federal government will argue that they were fully capable being that they were within arm's reach of stopping this crime from occurring. The only reason why they are not being charged fully is because they did not physically participate in the act.

TANYA RIVERO: Let me ask you something, as a former NYPD detective, is it very, very difficult for an officer to step in and prevent another officer from using excessive force? Is that something that needs to be sort of more ingrained in the culture or sort of encouraged? What are your thoughts based on your personal experience on the force?

KIRK BURKHALTER: Well, there certainly has always been a culture where one doesn't necessarily second guess another police officer. However, I have certainly seen in my time where police officers have stepped up when they saw someone basically abusing someone's rights or physically abusing another person. You know, something every police officer brings with them to the job and they leave with that is a sense of morality.

That's something my father told me when I became a cop. He told me, quite frankly, treat everyone as if I would want my mother or my brother treated and I would never have a problem. So you know, while there is a culture where police officers don't like to second guess another police officer, that is juxtaposed with the position that most police officers have a moral compass, and they will step in if they see this type of abuse.

The issue is that there are outliers, and we see these outliers, who do not step in. And that's where the culture needs to change, where a police officer who steps in and stops this will not be ostracized by his fellow police-- or his or her, rather, fellow police officers or the police department. Rather, this behavior should be encouraged. And I think that's a strong signal that the Justice Department is sending here.

TANYA RIVERO: And certainly there appear to be police officers, such as Derek Chauvin appears to have been, who continually use excessive force. He was also charged in a second separate indictment step-- stemming from an incident in 2017 involving a minor. He's accused of using an illegal neck restraint on a 14-year-old boy and beating him with a flashlight. What more can you tell us about these charges?

KIRK BURKHALTER: Well, that's actually rather sad. So what we see, first of all, is perhaps this action that he took against George Floyd, which resulted in his death, may not have been the first time that he did this type of action. So he is charged with holding a 14-year-old boy, restraining him by the neck for 17 minutes, I believe, and also beating him about the head and so forth with a flashlight.

It's-- it's sad to think that this is-- well, the first time that we heard about this was when there was a discussion as to whether this could be used as evidence in his criminal trial in Minnesota. Unfortunately in these instances-- this is what you were referring to-- there are police officers somewhere within that department that knew that Derek Chauvin was a loose cannon. They knew that he was heavy-handed. They knew that he would abuse his authority and use this type of force.

What typically occurs, rather than speaking up and making a formal complaint, police officers will simply tell their commanding officer or their supervisor I don't want to ride with that person. I don't want to work with that person. So it's really up to the supervisors and the department in and of itself. If someone keeps refusing to ride or work with another police officer, well, they need to investigate that and find out what has occurred.

And I think that's what we see here. This was, you know, over three years ago that this incident occurred. So it's rather interesting that the Justice Department is charging this behavior also. And you can expect that they will call witnesses and those who were on the scene. He certainly, more than likely, was not by himself when this occurred.

TANYA RIVERO: Professor Kirk Burkhalter, thank you so much for sharing your copious insight with us. We surely appreciate it.

KIRK BURKHALTER: You're quite welcome.