Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd both intentionally and negligently on May 25, 2020, so said the jury. The jury’s verdict finally confirmed what we all had seen with our own eyes.
Floyd’s horrific murder resulted from Chauvin’s knee being applied to the handcuffed man’s neck for more than nine minutes—the last two minutes after Floyd had stopped breathing. Throughout the violent and unnecessary police killing, George Floyd’s pleas of “I can’t breathe” requests for life, and calls for his mother were captured on a cell phone video recorded by Darnella Frazier, a teenaged bystander.
The video went viral, triggering national and international protests.
Chauvin was arrested and charged with the murder of George Floyd four days later. The other three Minneapolis police officers present at the scene, who assisted Chauvin in the deadly restraint of George Floyd were arrested on June 3, 2020, and charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin in the intentional killing of Mr. Floyd.
First Strategy Was a Cover-Up
It is not surprising that the initial police reports concerning the arrest and in-custody death of George Floyd prepared by the Minneapolis Police Department failed to mention how Floyd had been restrained and killed. On the contrary, the first official effort to publicly explain George Floyd’s death was to “cover up” any criminal responsibility of the four arresting officers.
That is the consistent gut reaction of police departments across the nation when they know, or even suspect, that one of their officers has been involved in abuse or homicide.
And that is why millions of Black Americans, people of color, and those who support their demand for equality, freedom, and justice took to the streets in utter celebration after the mixed-raced jury announced its guilty verdict against Chauvin on April 20, 2021, on all charges.
Accountability Still In Doubt
Understandably, millions of Americans who have directly or indirectly experienced police violence, killings, or abuse did not believe that this particular jury or the criminal justice system would hold Derek Chauvin accountable. This belief was pervasive even though Chauvin’s criminal conduct was vividly recorded on Darnella Frazier’s cell phone.
And there is a good reason for doubt and skepticism. The police not only have legal protections (such as qualified immunity), but the nation’s criminal justice system has had historic, de facto immunity for acts of violence and systemic racism against people of color. The criminal justice system, from minor traffic stops and arrests, throughout prosecution, sentencing, and imprisonment, has given police, and those who are complicit in their corruption, the perceived legal license to abuse people of color with impunity. The police, and those who follow through the ranks of the criminal justice system, have absolutely no concern that they will be held accountable for any wrong they inflict on people of color.
Writing in an April 22, 2021 op-ed piece for the Washington Post, criminal justice columnist Radley Balko pointed out that the nation’s criminal justice system has held fewer than ten police officers accountable for murder in on-duty police killings since 2005. During this same time, roughly 15,000 people were killed by police.
Phillip M. Stinson and Chaloe A. Wentziof, researchers for the Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University, pointed out in a 2020 Research Brief that between 2005 and 2019 there were 104 state law enforcement officers arrested for either murder or manslaughter in connection with fatal police shootings. Of those arrested, only 35 were convicted of any crime—fifteen by virtue of guilty pleas and twenty by jury trials. Only four officers were convicted of murder, and they received an average of 12 ½ years in prison. These sentences average far below those handed out to civilians and people of color charged with similar offenses.
Police Rarely Prosecuted or Convicted
Radley Balko made these final conclusions in his op-ed piece:
“What happened in Minneapolis on Tuesday isn’t typical. Even when officers are charged, which is rare, only about 45 percent are convicted, vs. nearly 70 percent in other cases. Among cases that go to trial, more than half are acquitted. For comparison, a 2009 study of the largest urban counties found that only about 1 percent of trials overall resulted in an acquittal. Juries simply don’t like to convict police officers.
“Big-city police chiefs tend to be reform-minded, but 90 percent of the police departments in the United States have 50 officers or less, and nearly half have fewer than 10. And while 42 percent of the largest police departments are led by Black chiefs, nationally, it’s just 4 percent. As of 2017, about 95 percent of elected prosecutors were White. In most places, it’s much more politically risky for a prosecutor to bring charges against a police officer.
“Chauvin’s conviction struck a blow for justice, but this isn’t how the system operates most of the time. It’s how the system operated once, under immense public scrutiny and extremely favorable conditions, with incredibly damning evidence. That’s why the reforms sparked by Floyd’s death are so important, and ought to be only the beginning. A system that requires so much merely to hold one of its own to account is a system badly in need of repair.”
We agree—and that’s why Congress must enact the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 and why the Texas Legislature must enact the Texas George Floyd Act if there is any hope of securing the badly needed repairs of the nation’s police forces.
People in America should not have to take to the streets to celebrate justice. They should be able to expect justice from the nation’s criminal justice system.