The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nearly two years after George Floyd’s death, fallout over police response to unrest continues

Police officers in Minneapolis surround protesters demonstrating against the death of George Floyd on May 31, 2020. Floyd died six days earlier, after Derek Chauvin leaned on his neck. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
10 min

In Denver, demonstrators who protested after George Floyd was killed were awarded $14 million in a lawsuit after jurors found that police violated their constitutional rights. A biting report in Minneapolis, where ex-officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd, concluded this month that police and local officials badly fumbled their response to the protests. And in Austin, 19 police officers were hit with criminal charges last month, accused of using excessive force during demonstrations there.

Nearly two years after Floyd’s death ignited nationwide protests, police and local officials across America continue to face fallout over their response. Numerous reports, including the recent Minneapolis review, have criticized departments for mishandling the unrest. Civil and criminal cases have taken aim at officers’ use of force in those frenzied days.

“The summer of 2020, in terms of the police response to demonstrations, was unlike any other summer we have seen in recent history,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a group that works with departments nationwide. “And the consequences … are all coming out now.”

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The viral video of Floyd gasping for air under Chauvin’s knee spurred what became a summer of protest. The demonstrations were overwhelmingly peaceful, according to researchers and law enforcement officials, though some cities experienced spasms of violence and property damage, including Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis. Police across the country also reported scores of injuries to officers.

But the law enforcement response to the protests drew widespread criticism. Police were repeatedly filmed using force on protesters demonstrating against police brutality. A Washington Post investigation found that at least eight people were partially blinded after being hit by police projectiles.

Police leaders, city officials and unions have defended the response, saying they were facing an unprecedented event. After the Austin indictments were announced, Police Chief Joseph Chacon said he was disappointed, adding that officers were working “under the most chaotic of circumstances in May of 2020.”

In Denver, a civil trial this month centered on allegations that police responded to protests with an “indiscriminate use of excessive force.” Attorneys for the demonstrators believe it was the first case focusing on the police response in 2020 to go to trial, while some others have been settled or remain pending.

In court documents, the demonstrators said police “appeared only interested in intimidating and punishing protestors with their ‘less-lethal’ weapons.”

“Free speech and peaceful assembly were under assault,” they wrote.

On Friday, a jury agreed the protesters’ constitutional rights were violated and awarded them a combined $14 million.

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Claire Sannier, one of the plaintiffs, said in an interview during the three-week trial that the police response was “almost immediately vastly more aggressive and confrontational than anything I’d ever seen” at previous demonstrations. Sannier said that at one point, she was “tear-gassed while on my knees with my hands up.”

“This was just so much justification for what we were angry and sad about,” said Sannier, 31, a software engineer and co-chair of the Denver chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. “The only response the police had to our challenge to them to be less brutal was to brutalize us.”

Attorneys who represented the city in the case pushed back and defended the officers’ actions.

Police “faced a challenging environment in responding to the protests which ... officers perceived as a riotous mob condition at different times," the attorneys wrote in a court filing last month.

Thousands of people converged on downtown Denver in late May and early June 2020 to demonstrate, the attorneys said in court documents, and “with this protected protest activity also came individuals engaging in violence and destruction.”

The attorneys disagreed with “the characterization [that] the protestors were largely peaceful,” saying police faced dangerous attacks from people lobbing “chunks of concrete, rocks, canned items, bottles, golf balls, fireworks, and mortars” at them. Dozens of officers were injured, they said, and hundreds of instances of property damage were reported.

Stanford Smith, another plaintiff who attended the protests while a student, said he was hit by tear gas without warning. Recounting the “excruciating pain” from the gas, Smith said he was not violent at any point and sympathizes with any officers hurt during the demonstrations. But police, he said, should still have done a better job managing the crowds.

Officers “were being very, very brutal toward the protesters,” Smith, 33, now a dentist in Dallas, said in an interview during the trial.

Sannier said the jury’s verdict gave the demonstrators “a huge sense of vindication."

A spokeswoman for the Denver City Attorney’s Office said the city would review its next steps, including whether to appeal.

The Denver Department of Public Safety, which includes the police force, said in a statement after the verdict that officers “encountered extreme destructive behavior from some agitators among largely peaceful protestors.”

“We recognize that some mistakes were made,” the department said, saying it had already made changes to how officers respond to unrest going forward.

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In recent weeks, Denver officials have approved more than $800,000 in settlements to two individuals struck by so-called less-lethal weapons. Authorities also recently agreed to settle lawsuits involving a protester shoved to the ground in New York and a group that was tear-gassed in Richmond. Austin officials last month agreed to pay $10 million in settlements to a pair of men hit in the head by police projectiles, with a spokesperson for the city saying the high amount was the result of the men’s “need for ongoing and long-term care.”

In Dallas, the district attorney last month announced charges against a current officer and a former one. They are accused of injuring demonstrators during the 2020 protests, and the district attorney’s office said both are charged with aggravated assault and oppression.

In Austin, District Attorney José Garza, who was elected in 2020, has emphasized police accountability, leading to tensions between his office and police. That continued when news broke about the 19 Austin officers being indicted, drawing criticism from the police and some local and state leaders.

Chacon, the Austin police chief, gave a brief public statement saying he was “not aware of any conduct that, given the circumstances that the officers were working under, would rise to the level of a criminal violation by these officers.”

The Austin officers are charged with aggravated assault by a public servant. In public documents, the district attorney’s office said cases involve protesters being hit by beanbag rounds and rubber bullets. The office declined an interview request for this story.

The police department said the officers have been placed on administrative leave but declined additional comment on the indictments, referring to Chacon’s statement.

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk said in a statement that the indictments would “heighten the anxiety of our officers and will impact the staffing shortages we are experiencing.” He also noted that Austin was “taking responsibility to compensate those who were injured due to actions of police officers” during the unrest, in a nod to the $10 million in settlements.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who is seeking a third term, also voiced support for the officers, issuing a statement saying they “should be praised for their efforts, not prosecuted,” and floated the possibility of pardons.

In an interview, Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, called the charges politically motivated.

“There was a big outcry from the community because these beanbags did cause some pretty severe damage,” he said. “And we don’t deny that. … But in no way are these cases criminal.”

Police were facing “a very difficult situation” with the demonstrations, Casaday said.

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“We had thousands of people,” Casaday said. “It just becomes overbearing. Could we have, could law enforcement have done a better job? Absolutely. I think we really would now, because we have a lot of experience in dealing with these issues now. But we’d never dealt with anything like that.”

The police response to the protests has been the subject of a wave of after-action reports. The findings have been remarkably consistent in cities across the country, concluding that law enforcement officials were utterly ill-prepared.

Police in Indianapolis, for example, “were unprepared for and insufficiently trained to address a demonstration of this magnitude,” a review there found, adding that “police departments all over the country had similar experiences in May and June 2020.”

A report by the Chicago inspector general found there were mounting signs on social media about protests, but police were still “underprepared and ill-equipped.” Police in Madison, Wis., a review found, were not ready “for the scope and emotion” of the protests. Similar conclusions were reached in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York and Minneapolis, where a long-awaited report was issued this month.

“Many within the Minneapolis police recognized that the [department’s] response to the protests did not go well,” the report said.

Minneapolis leaders mishandled response to protests after George Floyd’s killing, new report finds

Assessments found problems with police training and internal communication, with officers in different cities complaining they lacked sufficient support and direction from their superiors.

Issues with the police response boiled down to a “lack of ongoing training, and the quality of the training,” said David Thomas, a retired police officer who teaches forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University.

The reports also criticized how police used force. A review in Philadelphia said officers’ actions “likely contributed to an escalation of tensions” and led to avoidable uses of force, while an assessment in New York said police “often failed to discriminate between lawful, peaceful protesters and unlawful actors."

The reports also included recommendations that were similar in many cities. Going forward, assessments said, police need to boost preparations, improve training for protests and use of force, increase de-escalation efforts, and revise how uses of force are documented.

In Denver, where an independent monitor said officers used force in “extremely troubling” ways during the unrest, the police department said it has made several policy changes since the 2020 demonstrations, including requiring body cameras for officers working protests and altering when some of those weapons can be used.

Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum, said cities struggled with calm demonstrations during the day that gave way to sometimes chaotic scenes at night. His group issued its own report last month, urging departments to come up with clearer guidelines for using “less-lethal” weapons and improve training and communications within their own ranks and the community.

“There were countless cities where the communication wasn’t good, command and control wasn’t good,” Wexler said. “And departments are going to have to invest in this, because I don’t think we’ve seen the last of demonstrations like that.”