This opinion article was written by John Raphling, a Senior Researcher, US Program at Human Rights Watch
A Minnesota jury has properly convicted former officer Derek Chauvin of second-degree murder for the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.
Millions of people across the country watched the video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck until long after he lost consciousness and stopped begging for mercy. And many concluded what the jury made official today – this was a murder by a police officer.
The jury rejected Chauvin’s efforts to blame Floyd’s death on drugs, a weak heart, and even the police car’s exhaust. Unlike juries in so many previous prominent cases in which officers killed unarmed Black men – including Terence Crutcher, Philando Castille, and Freddie Gray – this jury did not accept the police officer’s excuses. Prosecutions of police officers are exceedingly rare; convictions even more so. This lack of criminal consequences for police violence has sent the message to officers that they can engage in abuses with impunity.
Unfortunately, this one conviction does not herald a new era of accountable policing. Few cases are so clearly indefensible as this one. Chauvin’s commanding officer testified against him, and even many police unions issued statements condemning him. The deliberate nature of his actions and the unambiguous video evidence made this case more easily proven. As Chauvin’s trial proceeded, police killings continued unabated. Just a few miles from Minneapolis, a Brooklyn Center officer killed Daunte Wright during a traffic stop. So far in 2021, police have killed at least 319 people.
Beyond the killing, police continue to have coercive, but non-fatal, interactions with people, especially Black, brown, and people living in poverty, that do nothing to advance public safety. Arbitrary detentions and searches, abusive arrests, non-lethal applications of force, selective enforcement of minor violations, and racial profiling all contribute to an understanding among many Black people that police do not protect or serve them but are intent on controlling them.
A criminal conviction for the most egregious and dramatic incident of violence is unlikely to change the systemic problems of US policing. Policy and training-related reforms have had little impact. Addressing poverty that contributes to crime, supporting community growth and development, providing access to health services, housing, education, and jobs, instead of responding to societal problems with police whose main tools are blunt force and criminalization, will improve public safety and reduce police violence.