WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr on Friday labeled the images of the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis whom a white police officer knelt on for nearly nine minutes, as “harrowing” and “deeply disturbing” and vowed that the federal investigation into his death would proceed quickly.
“I am confident justice will be served,” Mr. Barr said in a statement as protesters across the country condemned the actions of the officer, Derek Chauvin, who was charged Friday by the local authorities with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
But the Trump administration’s years of inaction on police violence and President Trump’s embrace of law enforcement have made civil rights advocates wary of the Justice Department’s involvement in the Floyd case. The administration has largely dismantled police oversight efforts, curbing the use of federal consent decrees to overhaul local police departments. Mr. Barr has said that communities that criticize law enforcement may not deserve police protection, and Mr. Trump has encouraged officers not to be “too nice” in handling suspects.
Advocates for police overhaul said in interviews on Friday that they were in a difficult position: After denouncing the federal government’s retreat from police accountability — and civil rights enforcement more broadly — they are now wary of its intentions.
“Our confidence in a federal intervention in cases like this is wholly dependent on the track record of the administration that is stepping in,” said Derrick Johnson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P. “This administration lacks credibility when it comes to addressing issues of justice, fairness and race.”
Mr. Barr said that any federal charges would be “based on the law and facts,” and that they would not come until after local charging decisions.
To bring federal civil rights charges in the Floyd case, prosecutors have to meet a difficult bar: proving that Mr. Chauvin intended to violate Mr. Floyd’s civil rights and acted on that wish, Mr. Johnson said. Prosecutors are often reluctant to bring such cases because they are so difficult to win.
“We are confronted with the stark reality this family may not see justice, even with the prevailing evidence in broad daylight from multiple camera views that there was no resisting, no physical provocation, that he was subdued and cuffed, that he said he can’t breathe, and that blood was coming out of his mouth,” Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Barr’s announcement suggested no broader investigation into possible abuses in the Minneapolis Police Department, a move that local activists have demanded. Congressional Democrats also asked the Justice Department this week to open an investigation into the police. The city has a history of accusations of police abuse, and in 2017, an officer in a Minneapolis suburb was found not guilty of manslaughter in the death of Philando Castile, a black motorist.
Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department aggressively sought to combat excessive use of force by the police. The department and local police departments signed 14 consent decrees, court-enforced agreements detailing remedies like additional police training or data collection.
The Justice Department under Mr. Obama most likely “would have looked at Minneapolis given the pattern of problems that were apparent,” said Jonathan Smith, a former department official who negotiated several of the decrees.
Justice Department findings typically prompted the consent agreements. Police in Ferguson, Mo., where the fatal shooting in 2014 of an unarmed black teenager by a white officer set off a national debate over the use of police force, fined and arrested African-Americans in part to balance the city’s budget, the department found. It concluded that the Baltimore police were more concerned with accumulating statistics than reducing violent crime.
Mr. Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, moved to rein Justice Department efforts to investigate patterns of allegations of misconduct by the local police.
The department under Mr. Trump has entered into consent decrees with the police in Evangeline, La., based on an investigation opened in 2015, and opened a so-called pattern-and-practice investigation into the police in Springfield, Mass. It has also pursued abuses in prison systems in Alabama and New Jersey.
But critics said that the department’s overall approach did little to address allegations of police misconduct.
“They’ve just really been dismissive about the fact that police abuse happens, and the fact that it’s a problem the federal government can and should do something about,” said Christy E. Lopez, a former deputy chief in the special litigation section of the civil rights division during the Obama administration.
She pointed to comments that Mr. Trump made in 2017 to the police on Long Island, suggesting that they should not protect the heads of suspects ushered into police cars. At the time, police departments around the country distanced themselves from the president’s position.
“It’s been the tenor of this entire administration and of the D.O.J.,” Ms. Lopez said. “That absolutely sends a message to police officers on the street.”
Mr. Sessions repeatedly argued that criticism of the police or excessive oversight could damage the morale of officers, harming their ability to control crime. Mr. Barr, in his own public comments, has stressed that abuses reflect “bad apples” more than systemic breakdowns.
Minority communities have long criticized Mr. Barr’s full-throated support of law enforcement, beginning with his first stint as attorney general under President George Bush, when he advocated on behalf of maximum sentencing laws that laid the groundwork for high rates of incarceration among black people.
Civil rights groups, including the N.A.A.C.P., opposed his confirmation last year. During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Barr defended his record but said that such a strict approach on sentencing was now unnecessary.
Critics wary of the Justice Department’s intervention in the Floyd case also pointed to statements Mr. Barr made over the past year in which he backed the police and cast protesters as endangering public safety.
He warned in December that critics of the police risked losing law enforcement protection, saying, “If communities don’t give that support and respect, they may find themselves without the police protection they need.” And he said last summer that officers were unfairly scrutinized when people resisted arrest while the fact that suspects who resisted arrest, endangering themselves and the police, “frequently goes without mention.”
“The cynicism that people have is well-grounded,” said David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia and a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who has long worked on police accountability cases.
The burden in the Floyd case is on law enforcement “to show that they can actually do a credible investigation,” he said.
Mr. Barr’s defenders pointed to his first stint as attorney general, when the acquittals of four white Los Angeles police officers in the beating of a black motorist, Rodney King, incited protests and riots in Los Angeles and across the country.
The Justice Department intervened, charging the officers with violating Mr. King’s civil rights. Federal prosecutors secured guilty verdicts against two of the officers, and many civil rights advocates said that the federal government had helped secure justice for Mr. King.
“Bill did take a very personal interest in the case,” said George Terwilliger, Mr. Barr’s top deputy at the time. “The damage that can be done to law enforcement interests when officers engage in criminal acts can’t be underestimated.”
Mr. Terwilliger said that every attorney general should have a record of solid support for police, “but that doesn’t mean that when law enforcement authority is abused, that you’re going to lay down.”
Mr. Floyd’s death has echoes of the death of Eric Garner, who died after an officer on Staten Island wrapped his arm around Mr. Garner’s neck. The encounter was captured on video and Mr. Garner’s dying words of “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for demonstrations.
A local grand jury voted not to indict the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, and the Justice Department declined to charge him after a five-year investigation, saying it could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he had willingly and knowingly violated Mr. Garner’s civil rights. The New York Police Department ultimately dismissed Mr. Pantaleo over his use of an illegal chokehold on Mr. Garner.