Pritzker Hageman handles cases all over the country, but we are firmly footed in our home city of Minneapolis. We love our city and, like the rest of America, were devastated by the killing of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, ignoring his repeated pleas of “I can’t breathe,” as well as the entreaties of anguished bystanders.
As lawyers for injured people, our very mission statement is to achieve justice and accountability for people harmed – or for the families of those killed – by others. We seek to remedy injustice every day of our professional lives. As evidenced by the anger exploding across our country, George Floyd’s death is a tragedy crying out for justice and accountability.
We join in the chorus of Americans who are seeking justice for George Floyd and for meaningful change that can help prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future. But we are not naïve enough to think that change will come quickly or easily. Indeed, in the work we have done on behalf of people injured by police violence, we have seen firsthand the size of the problem we – as Minneapolitans, as Americans – are facing. We have repeatedly tried to shine a light on unconstitutional police conduct and we will continue to do so. Here is but one example:
In 2016, we represented 18-year old Luis Garcia, an innocent passenger in a vehicle stopped by the police in south Minneapolis, who was handcuffed and detained without cause and placed in the rear of Minneapolis police officer Blayne Lehner’s squad car. While Mr. Garcia was handcuffed behind his back in the rear of the squad, Officer Lehner kicked him in the face with enough force to break his jaw and nose, knock out his two front teeth and render him unconscious.
The only thing more appalling than Officer Lehner’s belief that he could treat a handcuffed prisoner so inhumanely was his belief that there would be no consequences for such brutality. For years, the MPD turned a blind eye to Lehner’s conduct, repeatedly praising him for “aggressive” police tactics, even though those tactics often crossed the constitutional line. At the time of his assault on Mr. Garcia, Lehner had amassed 36 complaints of misconduct in his fifteen years on the police force. Shockingly, despite multiple findings that Lehner had used unreasonable force (primarily by kicking suspects), Lehner had received almost no discipline at all. Making matters worse, despite the numerous red flags Lehner’s conduct should have raised, the MPD instead praised, encouraged, and rewarded Lehner at nearly every turn. MPD’s failure to take any meaningful action to rein in Lehner or deter him, even in the face of proven unconstitutional assaults, is precisely what led him to believe that a bone-shattering kick to the face of a handcuffed 120-pound teenager would go unpunished.
Even worse than the MPD’s tolerance of Lehner’s history of abuses, however, was the evidence we uncovered about the lengths to which Lehner’s police colleagues went to protect him, including a willingness to commit perjury. At the time Garcia was assaulted, multiple officers were on the scene – in some cases only steps away – yet none of them acknowledged they saw anything untoward. While two civilian witnesses testified that up to five officers were standing around Garcia while he was unconscious on the ground, none of those officers admitted to seeing that. For his part, so indefensible was Lehner’s conduct that he asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege in response to deposition questioning about it.
What happened to Luis Garcia, as terrible as it was, pales in comparison to the shocking and tragic death of Mr. Floyd. Yet the root cause that enabled the officers to commit such abuses in both cases is the same: a total and complete absence of accountability for all forms of police misconduct. Until the police culture that enables such abuses changes, meaningful change will be very difficult.
Yet all hope is not lost. We can all do our part to help. While our law firm will continue to fight for meaningful changes through the legal system and to put pressure on police departments to reform their culture or face judgments in civil lawsuits, there are also things all of us can do in America. In the wake of this tragedy, we can all try to summon our capacity for empathy and to better understand the damage of racism in America. We can all work to increase our understanding and to be more compassionate. In doing so, we would be wise to consider the words of a great leader who spoke to the nation after another tragedy that roiled our nation.
On the late afternoon of April 4, 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, learned that Dr. King had been killed after landing in Indianapolis for a large campaign rally. After sharing the news of Dr. King’s death at the rally, Senator Kennedy recited his favorite poem (from Aeschylus): “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Kennedy went on to say: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black… Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
On the night of Kennedy’s speech, rioting took place in over 100 American cities. But not in Indianapolis. Although Kennedy was tragically assassinated only two months after he gave that speech, the racial goal for the United States that he voiced 52 years ago remains very much in need today.
Amidst this time of the coronavirus pandemic continuing around the world and now of renewed racial pain in America, we hope all Americans will heed his words.