Minneapolis leaders on Friday agreed to pay a record $27 million to settle a lawsuit brought by George Floyd's family, closing the civil case just as the murder trial for one of the ex-officers accused of killing him is beginning.
Attorneys for the Floyd family hailed it as the largest pretrial settlement in a civil rights wrongful death lawsuit in U.S. history, saying the payout sent a powerful statement about the value of Black lives in America.
"This is a message that the unjust taking of Black life will no longer be written off as trivial, unimportant or unworthy of consequences," attorney Ben Crump said during a news conference Friday afternoon.
The family's legal team voiced hope that the agreement will push policymakers across the country to institute policing reforms to avoid having to write large checks for law enforcement misconduct. Floyd's death on a Minneapolis street corner triggered worldwide protests over racism and police brutality and has already changed laws on police procedures in Minnesota and beyond.
The payout surpasses the previous $20 million record for Minneapolis. That sum was awarded in 2019 in the case of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a white woman killed by a Black officer after she reported a possible assault in a nearby alley.
Including the Floyd settlement, Minneapolis will have spent at least $71 million in the past 15 years to settle officer misconduct claims or lawsuits. The payments, and a slew of PTSD claims made by officers who responded to the rioting following Floyd's death, will strain the city's finances.
The settlement made for an emotional moment for Floyd's relatives. They had been watching this week as jury selection began in the murder trial for former officer Derek Chauvin, who was filmed kneeling on Floyd's neck until he lost consciousness. Family members say they felt his death could have been avoided if police had worked to de-escalate the situation.
"I think that I speak for myself and my family when I say that we would give the settlement back gladly to have George still here with us," said Floyd's nephew, Brandon Williams. "No amount of money can cure this pain, this heartache."
The Floyd family filed a federal lawsuit in July against the city and the four now-former officers charged in his death. They argued that the officers showed a "reckless disregard" for his civil rights by using deadly force in non-deadly circumstances and that the city engaged in a culture of "killology," failed to terminate dangerous officers and fostered a culture of racism.
The City Council voted unanimously Friday afternoon to approve the settlement, $500,000 of which will be used "for the benefit of the community around 38th and Chicago," where Floyd died. Mayor Jacob Frey's office quickly said he would approve it as well.
"We know that no amount of money can ever address the intense pain and trauma caused by his death, for George Floyd's family and to so many people in our community who are grieving," City Council President Lisa Bender said. "Minneapolis has been fundamentally changed by this time of racial reckoning."
During a news conference Friday, Crump praised elected leaders for the settlement, saying it will allow Minneapolis to be "a beacon of hope and light and change for cities across America and across the globe."
Attorney Antonio Romanucci praised the city for changing some criminal justice policies to prevent excessive force, but he stressed that the legal team would be working with the city to institute far more measures to prevent another death like Floyd's.
In addition to pushing for legislation that improves a police arbitration system that critics say makes it too difficult to fire bad cops, Romanucci said they would be working with the city to establish a panel to review each instance of force used by police; a quality assurance unit to ensure that the Police Department is strictly following new reforms; and an early intervention system to weed out officers with patterns of problematic behavior.
"If all of these are implemented, Minneapolis would become the model, and what a great thing that would be in the face of a historic and tragic death," he said.
The attorneys said they will be watching closely to see if Minneapolis leaders follow through on their promises.
"If you don't get policing correct, if you don't make these changes, if you don't fix the policies that are happening, then you'll be seeing us again because we are making sure that Black lives and Black value will be understood," said attorney Chris Stewart.
While they presented a unified front Friday to support the settlement, city leaders are engaged in a fierce, polarizing debate about whether to replace the Police Department or keep it and enact stricter accountability measures. The question could go to voters in November.
Minneapolis typically uses money from its self-insurance fund to cover such settlements, but that fund had already been depleted. City Coordinator Mark Ruff said during Friday's news conference that city leaders anticipated "some of these liabilities," referring both to the settlement and the PTSD claims, and had been working to build up reserve funds.
"At this time, we feel that we can confidently say … this settlement alone will not result in property taxes increasing because of that judicious nature of saving the money that is necessary," Ruff said.
City representatives didn't respond to multiple requests Friday seeking clarity on which reserve funds they would use to cover the settlement or whether city services would be cut as a result.
The timing of the settlement — on the fifth day of jury selection in Chauvin's murder trial — surprised some legal observers, who privately questioned whether it could make it difficult to select jurors or prejudice already selected jurors.
Others noted that judges can instruct jurors to disregard news about settlements.
City Attorney Jim Rowader would not comment on the timing Friday, except to say: "We're trying to be very respectful of the criminal proceedings that are now underway, and we're in the middle of jury selection, and I think it would be wise for all of us to refrain from commenting on something that is ongoing."
Opening statements in Chauvin's trial are scheduled to begin March 29.
He faces charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
A trial for the other three former officers charged in Floyd's death — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — is set to begin Aug. 23. They face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Staff writers Abby Simons and Chao Xiong contributed to this report.
$27 million (2021): Family of George Floyd, died after being pinned during arrest
$20 million (2019): Family of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, killed by police after reporting a possible assault
$4.5 million (2007): Duy Ngo, Minneapolis police officer shot by fellow officer
$3.1 million (2013): Family of David Smith, died after struggle with police at YMCA
$2.2 million (2011): Family of Dominic Felder, shot by police; paid after jury award