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Sunday, January 23, 2022

We must not see Derek Chauvin as an outlier. He was a symptom of a system that needs change

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While the Minneapolis police ultimately turned on Chauvin, with the police chief and others testifying that he violated department policy, the department’s initial claims about the killing are revealing: “Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”

Whether the police department simply took Chauvin’s account of the killing at face value or was actively covering up for him, the level of falsehood here is a powerful reminder that we cannot trust what police say. And remember, three other officers were on the scene (and face lesser charges expected to go to trial this summer) and didn’t publicly challenge the lies about how Floyd died. Police cover up their own crimes, and their word should never be taken as any more reliable than anyone else’s.

Even police unions welcomed the verdict, but again, that can be less a sign of intention to change than a sign that this case was different from the norm. And some unnamed police officers gave NBC News a different message. “It’s disheartening to hear the prosecution throw cops under the bus and leave the defense to build them up, which is the opposite of what normally happens,” a member of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Florida said.

First, that’s a sign that some law enforcement officers see what Chauvin did as something that should have been defended by the entire system. Second, has “what normally happens” changed, or did one high-profile case provide plausible deniability for future abuses?

”It has an effect on police officers, no doubt about it, and for some officers it can even affect the way they approach certain situations,” a white New York Police Department sergeant told NBC News. “They may be more hesitant to use force. I’d hate for officers to get killed or injured because they hesitated to use force.”

It’s common to hear claims that policing is a uniquely dangerous job and not using force will endanger police, but the evidence for that is scant. Law enforcement is not one of the 10 most dangerous jobs in the U.S.—many construction jobs, agricultural work, and garbage collection are far more dangerous. Police are taught that they face a constant imminent threat that they simply do not face, and the public suffers for it, with U.S. police killing at higher rates than police in other countries and killing disproportionately Black people.

So will the Chauvin verdict change anything? The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests prompted the passage of police oversight and reform laws in more than 30 states. But more recently, Republicans in several states have pushed anti-protest legislation that could mean harsher penalties, in practice, for people who protest police killings than for the police who commit those killings. After all, Chauvin’s guilty verdict is very much an outlier—most police who kill civilians never even face charges.

And even politicians who called for accountability and hailed the guilty verdict have themselves focused on possible violence from protesters to the exclusion of fully engaging with the problem of widespread police violence. 

Before Black people even get a chance to process their feelings of trauma and grief, they’re being told by people they elected to the White House—that they put into power—‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’” University of California, Irvine political scientist Davin Phoenix said to The New York Times. “I would love if more politicians, at least those that claim to be allied, turn to the police and say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’”

These are among the reasons why, while many people are rightly celebrating the verdict, activists and academics alike warn that this does not represent lasting change. “People will say we’ve rooted out that one bad actor and that’s all it was—one bad actor,” Philadelphia organizer Stephanie Keene told The Washington Post. “It’s not a systemic issue. It’s not policing working as it’s designed, it’s Derek Chauvin being a bad example of America’s finest. But my bigger worry is that the general public will be like, ‘We let the system handle it and the system handled it, and now we can go to brunch.’”


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