Derek Chauvin’s criminal trial in the death of George Floyd is scheduled to begin shortly. He faces charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter in the death of Floyd. The eight-minute video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck until he went motionless and later succumbed resulted in nationwide protests.
The legal fees for the former Minneapolis police officer are likely to prove substantial, and the city of Minneapolis is not footing the bill. While cops are supposed to pay for their own legal expenses when accused of crimes, that may not prove a concern for Chauvin.
The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which boasts of having “a rich tradition of improving the lives of its 10,000 members,” also has a rich tradition of paying the legal fees of accused police officers. Chauvin is receiving help with his legal costs from the MPPOA, and so are the three other former officers involved in Floyd’s death.
The situation is far from unusual – there are many such funds nationwide. Police officers’ ability to access this money when faced with criminal charges is among the reasons that bad cops often do not face accountability.
Union Benefits and Non-profit Organizations
Police officers generally receive this legal defense benefit as part of their union membership. Each member pays a fee, whether monthly or annually, and if they are involved in an on-the-job killing, they can then receive advice from defense attorneys via their union.
The National Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund is a non-profit organization assisting officers accused of crimes without the need for those individuals to belong to a union or pay fees. In recent years, many police officers charged in high-profile deaths have received help from the LELDF. These include the six Baltimore police officers who were acquitted or had their charges dropped in the death of Freddie Gray.
District Attorney Donations
The issue with police legal defense funds goes beyond that of criminal cops. Some of the groups in charge of legal defense funds also contribute heavily to district attorney candidates. It is the district attorney, after all, who determines whether to bring charges against law enforcement officers.
For instance, the Peace Officers Research Association of California, the state’s largest public safety organization, also has the country’s oldest, largest, and “most respected” legal plan, as per PORAC. It serves more than 135,000 members nationwide. PORAC supports candidates for prosecutor in elections across the state. Among them was Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert. She received at least $3,000 from PORAC in her 2013 campaign. A few years later, Schubert decided not to press charges against the officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark when he was in his grandmother’s backyard holding a cellphone.
The conflict of interest is alarming. Police reform candidates are targets of PORAC spending. In 2020, PORAC spent $724,000 in the Los Angeles County district attorney race against reformist challenger George Gascon. The police shootings in LA County are among the highest in the nation. Gascon is a former beat cop and assistant chief of the LAPD. Despite the money spent by PORAC to defeat him, Gascon won the election.
Police organizations have generally condemned Chauvin’s actions. Even the executive director of the MPPOA told interviewer Gayle King that Chauvin “betrayed the badge.” Perhaps, but not enough of a betrayal that the organization refuses to pay for his defense.