Police Culture on Trial in Case Against Officers in Killing of George Floyd


Defense lawyers for Mr. Kueng and Mr. Lane, the two rookies, are expected to place the blame on Mr. Chauvin and argue that they were following the lead of their senior officer. Mr. Thao’s lawyer is likely to argue that his client was too busy dealing with the crowd to know what exactly was happening to Mr. Floyd, according to legal experts. All three still face charges in state court of aiding and abetting murder, in a trial scheduled for June.

To make their case, prosecutors will have to prove willfulness, a high standard under the law that implies some form of intent. In the past, federal prosecutors have been reluctant to bring these types of cases because of the difficulty proving willfulness.

“The basic idea is that the officer has to know he is doing something wrong,” said Rachel Harmon, a former prosecutor in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division who now teaches at the University of Virginia School of Law. “Doing something with the intent to do something that the law forbids. He doesn’t have to be thinking specifically in constitutional terms.”

For decades, courts have recognized that police officers have a duty to intervene against other officers. Following the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, departments, including in Minneapolis, have trained recruits to move against fellow officers when they see misconduct.

But federal criminal cases — either against officers who used deadly force or those who stood by and watched — have been rare. Underscoring the difficulty of proving willfulness, the Justice Department has declined to bring charges in some of the highest-profile police killings in recent memory, including over the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

Understand the Civil Rights Trial Over George Floyd’s Death Card 1 of 5 Police culture on trial. The federal civil rights trial of three former officers for their role in the killing of George Floyd centers on a crucial issue in American policing: the duty of officers to intervene against fellow officers when they witness misconduct. A new focus. Ever since the murder of Mr. Floyd almost two years ago, the overwhelming focus has been on the officer who killed him, Derek Chauvin. While Mr. Chauvin was convicted of murder in a state trial last spring, he wasn’t the only officer there that day. Who are the officers on trial? Three officers are accused of willfully failing to intervene against Mr. Chauvin and help Mr. Floyd. Tou Thao, a veteran officer who was Mr. Chauvin’s partner, held back a group of bystanders. J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane — both rookies — helped pin down Mr. Floyd. What are the charges? The charges concern whether the defendants deprived Mr. Floyd of his civil rights. All three officers are charged with failing to provide medical aid to Mr. Floyd, while Mr. Kueng and Mr. Thao also face a count of failing to intervene with Mr. Chauvin’s use of force. The big picture. Several experts say the trial’s outcome could have a greater impact on policing than even Mr. Chauvin’s convictions. That’s because the case is about a far more common aspect of police culture than Mr. Chauvin’s brutality: officers who do not intervene in the conduct of fellow officers.

One of the most well-known federal prosecutions of officers was the conviction of two police officers for the beating of Mr. King, after they were acquitted in state court. One of those convicted was a sergeant, Stacey Koon, who failed to intervene while other officers beat Mr. King.