Could the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial mark a changing tide in holding law enforcement responsible for police violence?
This is one of the most important questions emerging from the trial, in which a jury found former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd. Chauvin is one of a few officers to be convicted in a police violence trial, and the fact that law enforcement officers condemned him in court was also quite rare.
There are several reasons why it’s unusual for a white officer to be prosecuted or convicted of violence against a Black person, especially murder, on the job: police impunity through their right to use force, backing from powerful police unions, and the overall portrayal of policing as being inherently virtuous. Some 1,000 people are shot and killed by police each year — with Black people shot at a disproportionate rate — and many are considered justified. Of those, where an officer is accused of misconduct, only a fraction of officers are ever convicted (and even fewer on murder charges).
“I think this is a watershed moment. Whether we’re going to see the change that should occur remains to be seen,” said Christopher E. Brown, a Virginia lawyer who runs The Brown Firm PLLC, which won a $3.5 million settlement in 2020 for the family of Wayne Jones, a Black man who was shot 22 times by Martinsburg, West Virginia, police in 2013. “This case had an enormous amount of national attention. We can’t ignore the fact that that played a role.”
“Hopefully,” he added, “the pressure will stay on local, state prosecutors to bring charges against officers.”
Recent developments have signified a shift. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a Department of Justice investigation into Minneapolis’ police practices, another rare action of oversight by the federal government into a local law enforcement agency. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court made it easier to sue police for using excessive force. Meanwhile, some Black officers have been sidestepping police unions in the wake of Floyd’s death to call for changes within police departments.
But some civil rights groups say convictions and even criminal charges aren’t the answer to ending police violence. In a statement, social justice organization Black Visions said Chauvin may face a sentence, but “the entire legal system that allowed this murder to take place remains intact.”
Color of Change President Rashad Robinson said although the trial is historic and important, “we should be clear about the work that still needs to be done.”
“Twelve jurors can’t deliver justice. It’s going to take millions of people delivering structural change that will bring about true justice,” he said. “There are so many forces that are incentivized to make us believe that more happened here than did, because they want to go back to doing what they were doing. The police unions, the politicians who support their causes, folks that demonize Black communities — all of those folks would love us to believe that this one trial was the turning point. What actually is the turning point is the millions of people who continue to take action in the service of change.”
The Chauvin verdict marks the first time a white police officer has been convicted of murdering a Black man in Minnesota. Jamal Johnson, director of The Legal Aid Society’s Homicide Defense Task Force, said he hopes the case, along with public pressure, will prompt more prosecutors to bring charges against police rather than deferring to their impunity. He said activists have long called on the Justice Department to get involved in addressing police violence, but his confidence in the agency wavers.
“Federal investigations are only as good as the leadership that exists at the time,” he said. Johnson added that the Chauvin trial could signify a positive change in the perspectives of future juries.
“There are many people who show up for jury duty who say, ‘I believe the police officers.’ I think because of what happened in this trial, that is eroding somewhat. Jurors don’t view police officers as credible simply because they have a badge,” he said.
Even amid the national attention on the verdict, many organizers said that such convictions will never address, but only empower, the criminal legal system. Mariame Kaba, an organizer who advocates abolishing policing and prisons, wrote in 2014 that a singular indictment won’t end oppressive policing “rooted in anti-Blackness, social control, and containment.”
Now, Derecka Purnell, author of “Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom,”is reinforcing the point.
“The celebration of the conviction as ‘accountability’ or ‘justice’ that will send chills down the spines of police simply doesn’t comport with the law, which protects the police’s right not to think before they act,” she wrote in The Guardian. The “underlying power to be violent will remain virtually unchanged and many more people will die because of it.”