Convictions of Police Alone Won’t Fix What’s Wrong With Law Enforcement

March 17, 2021, 8:00 AM

Jury selection is underway in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the White police officer whose knee launched a thousand protests. The trial presents a knot of legal and moral questions that go to the heart of whether a single prosecution can meet the public’s demand for a racial reckoning on policing.

From Tamir Rice to Michael Brown to Eric Garner, a long series of non-indictments in high-profile killings of Black men and women make plain that prosecutions of police officers are rare, and convictions rarer still.

For instance, law enforcement officers shoot and kill about 1,000 people a year in the U.S.; but between 2005 and 2020, only 110 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter following an on-duty shooting, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, citing the Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database. Of 42 police officers found guilty, only five were convicted of murder. The rest were convicted of other charges, most commonly manslaughter.

According to Mapping Police Violence, Black people accounted for 28% of those killed by police in 2020, despite being only 13% of the population, and are three times more likely to be killed by police than White people.

High Legal Hurdles to a Guilty Verdict

While public pressure for a conviction in Chauvin’s case may be high, the legal hurdles to a guilty verdict are formidable.

In Minnesota and in most states, officers can use deadly force if they reasonably perceive an imminent danger to themselves—a standard that is both subjective and deeply prone to racial bias. Jurors, particularly White jurors, tend to give officers benefit of the doubt, which is why jury selection in Chauvin’s case will be prolonged and contested.

Chauvin is currently charged with third-degree murder, second degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Under Minnesota law, second-degree murder doesn’t require showing intent to kill, but does require the prosecution to prove that the defendant did so while committing felony assault. In Chauvin’s case, that could be difficult. That is one reason why prosecutors furiously litigated to reinstate the third-degree murder charge, which lowers the standard to “perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others” with a “depraved mind.”

The depravity part seems clear: We all saw Chauvin digging his knee into a handcuffed man’s neck for about nine minutes while George Floyd moaned repeatedly that he could not breathe. But there is an ongoing legal dispute about whether Chauvin’s actions must have endangered other people in addition to Floyd in order to prove a third-degree murder charge.

But wrangling over the legal standard of proof obscures the reality that individual prosecutions of police officers will never address the larger problem of racist policing. Why? Because even in an age of cell-phone videos, accountability of any kind for police misconduct is so rare that police continue to operate with impunity.

Chauvin was able to stare down a crowd of onlookers, hand in his pocket as if on a Sunday stroll, because experience had taught him that he could do such things without fear of consequence. By the time he dug his knee into Floyd’s neck, Chauvin reportedly had already been the subject of 17 complaints of abuse. He had every reason to believe his union would come strongly to his defense, as it did.

Neither do prosecutions of individual officers for high-profile killings address the everyday humiliations that Black people suffer at the hands of police. This includes the harassment of homeless people, the intimidation of teenagers on their way from school, and the indiscriminate stops and frisks of Black men against their car hoods, just to show them who’s boss.

Floyd’s murder was fuel to a long-simmering rage that many Black people feel toward police, whom they experience not as protectors, but as an occupying force of racial social control.

Police Deployment Is Driven By Racial Fears

Given this context, people are justified in asking, why has funding of police departments grown steadily by 1.2% every year for the past 20 years, even as the crime rate has steadily declined?

Research confirms that racial fear rather than crime rates often motivates police deployment. According to a 2017 study, even a modest 1% rise in the population of young Black or Hispanic males correlated with an 11%-12% increase in the police budget.

Moreover, why are we asking police to answer every call about a person who is homeless, high, or in mental distress? In the case of Floyd, did we need four armed police officers to respond to a complaint about a man passing a counterfeit $20 bill—a petty crime of poverty?

Police are neither equipped nor effective in responding to these sorts of social problems, and too often people end up dead. Indeed, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other civilians.

As police budgets rose over the past two decades, funding for social service and anti-poverty programs declined. These are programs that might have helped a man like George Floyd, who, like millions of Americans, had recently lost his job due to the pandemic.

This is the logic that is driving calls by the Movement for Black Lives and others to shift public spending from police into education, job development, green parks and health care—the building blocks of truly safe and healthy communities.

All of this calls into question whether we should be equating justice with a conviction that— if it comes—will be largely symbolic if it is not paired with larger transformations in how we think about public safety. The family of George Floyd deserves accountability, but let’s not look for answers only in a courtroom.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Tanya Coke directs the Ford Foundation’s Gender, Racial and Ethnic Justice team, focusing on issues of policing, mass incarceration, immigration and reproductive justice. She is a former criminal defense attorney with the Legal Aid Society and Distinguished Lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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