Ben Crump, the Florida attorney representing George Floyd’s survivors, calls himself the “African-American family emergency plan.”
“Because when you think about it, who are you going to call when the police kill your family?” Crump said by phone last week from a hotel room in Milwaukee, where he had just arrived to demand body camera footage from another deadly police encounter. “You’re not going to call the police.”
Crump has won more than 200 police brutality suits and represents the families of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in addition to Floyd’s. A fixture on television news interviews, Crump rose to international fame for filing successful lawsuits on behalf of Trayvon Martin’s and Michael Brown’s families.
He is also at once a spokesman for the families and a shoulder to lean on in their most traumatic hour. Since taking the Floyd family’s case, Crump joined them at the south Minneapolis memorial site where Floyd died in police custody, at several vigils, and at a U.S. House hearing on policing reform and inequality.
Now, as the family awaits the criminal prosecution of the four fired Minneapolis police officers charged in Floyd’s death — Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — Crump is also preparing a federal civil rights lawsuit that legal experts say could dwarf the record $20 million payout for the 2017 death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
Often — such as in the cases of Martin and Brown, whose shooters were either not charged or were acquitted — civil judgments won by Crump can represent their survivors’ only courtroom victory.
“The criminal prosecution of police in cases of them killing and brutalizing minorities in America is abysmal,” Crump said. “So often it happens that unfortunately people have kind of accepted that police have gotten away with killing black people as the norm. We can’t accept that. We have to use every strategy possible to try to say, ‘This is not America. All Americans deserve equal justice.’ ”
On Monday, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill set a March 8 date for a trial expected to garner intense international interest. Though he did not name Crump, Cahill warned that further pretrial public commentary by elected officials and others could lead him to move the trial outside of Hennepin County over concerns that the officers would not get a fair trial there.
Defense attorneys for the four former officers declined to comment for this article. Robert Paule, Thao’s attorney, argued in court Monday that the steady stream of opinions on the case had imperiled his client’s constitutional right to a fair trial.
“I’m fighting the battle with one hand,” Paule said, referring to the public statements.
Yet for Crump, the fight for justice is one that must be waged both in the court of law and public opinion. In both arenas, the May 25 video depicting Floyd’s final moments has been at the center. It also sparked ongoing international unrest over racism and police brutality.
“To see a documentary of a man being murdered is still shocking and even more shocking when that documentary of his murder is being narrated by the person being murdered,” Crump said.
Crump and Floyd’s family were key to the appointment of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to lead the state’s prosecution of the officers. Crump said that earlier news conferences by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman fueled their demands, notably one in which Freeman alluded to mitigating factors in the case, such as Floyd’s health and drug use. He said the family believes in Ellison, however, “because Keith has a record of being a champion of civil rights and equal justice in America.”
“I don’t think we could have gotten a better prosecutor to prosecute this case anywhere else in America than Keith Ellison,” Crump said.
The family would like to see Chauvin charged with the more serious crime of first-degree murder. Ellison outlined the burden of proving that charge in a private meeting with family last week, but said he would not rule out new charges if the evidence warrants them.
Crump has assembled a 10-person legal team in the Floyd case, including lawyers from Chicago and Minneapolis, such as Jeffrey Storms, whose résumé includes a $3 million settlement in a deadly 2010 Minneapolis police encounter. Crump says he has always earned at least some payment for his clients, and he pockets about a third of all settlement money or monetary judgments.
“It was readily apparent to me that Mr. Crump deeply believes in the work he does and recognizes the significance of this moment,” Storms said. “In my opinion, you could not expend the constant time and energy that Mr. Crump expends on these important cases unless you’re driven by a higher sense of purpose and a genuine love and empathy for other human beings.”
A lawsuit against the former officers involved or Minneapolis could match or eclipse the award to the family of Damond, who was killed by former Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor. Noor is serving 12½ years in prison after becoming the only Minnesota officer convicted in the death of a civilian last year.
“It’s always a calculus of public opinion and the skill of the lawyers involved,” said Bob Bennett, who represented Damond’s family. “They certainly have the case qualities you would want to have for bringing a successful civil rights action and for negotiating that type and quality of a settlement.”
Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.