OPINION: Chauvin Sentencing Important, not Significant
On Friday, former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was handed a sentence of 22,5 years in prison for his role in the murder of George Floyd last year. While his sentencing did not make as much news as when he was found guilty of multiple counts of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death, it was nonetheless an important step. But being important does not equate to being significant.
When news first broke of George Floyd’s murder, people around the world, regardless of skin color, were quick to protest against yet another case of police brutality targeting African Americans. As the Black Lives Matter movement swept the nation, calls for police reform and systematic changes to police behavior came from a majority of the American public, and found support in Europe and Asia too. When Derek Chauvin was found guilty of his role in the murder of George Floyd during a police operation in Minneapolis, the news was celebrated around the world as a justified end to a terrible situation. Throughout the testimonies collected at the trial of Mr. Chauvin’s trial, black men continued to be harassed and shot by police across the country, including the shooting death of Duante Wright in Minneapolis, the same city where George Floyd was murdered. Similar incidents occurred in cities from Baltimore to Honolulu, resulting in protesting and continuing calls for police reforms.
Mr. Chauvin’s indictment was a rare event in American history. In the wide majority of cases of officer-involved shootings, the officer involved is almost always found innocent of murder or manslaughter. The reasons behind this are plentiful. Most people consider victims of officer-involved shootings to be, at least to some degree, guilty of a crime and posing a threat to police officers, leaving the police no choice but to use lethal force, resulting in an overwhelmingly pro-Police sentiment in the court of public opinion. In the actual courtroom, jurors often seem ill-equipped in their own capabilities to judge the culpability of a police officer, with the perils and stresses of a police officer’s job being unknown to them, so the use of lethal force must have been necessary in the case of a shooting. This, combined with an inherent trust of trained professionals like police officers, leads to most police officers being found innocent of any crimes (Interestingly, this phenomenon is also common in medical malpractice cases, where jurors often find doctors innocent of malpractice claims, due to an inherent trust of doctors and medical professionals).
As Mr. Chauvin now looks at a minimum of 15 years behind bars (the earliest possible date of his parole), the question seems to be how will the relationship between minorities and the police be in the year 2036? People often hold that in the future things will always change for the better, and in fact 15 years is quite a long time to work on the relationship between police and the people they are paid to protect. As the majority of Americans now agree that at least some police reform is necessary for the health and safety of American communities, it seems to be that Mr. Chauvin’s indictment and sentencing will be a significant step in the attempt to alleviate deeply rooted issues between police and the policed. In this journalist’s opinion, this opinion is naïve and nearsighted.
In March of 2020, Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by police in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky when police attempted to serve a search warrant in a case involving her boyfriend who lived with her. The police forced entry into the house, and Ms. Taylor’s boyfriend, who claims he did not hear the police identify themselves, responded to the forced entry by shooting a warning shot at the police, hitting one officer in the leg. Police responded by shooting 32 bullets into the apartment, killing Ms. Taylor. In 2014, Eric Garner was wrestled to the ground and placed in an illegal chokehold by a member of the New York Police Department after being found selling cigarettes illegally on a street corner, a chokehold from which he soon died. In 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old student was shot and killed by a Community Watch officer in Florida, after visiting relatives in a gated community. In 1991, Rodney King was beaten almost to death by Los Angeles Police Officers on videotape, resulting in riots and protests around the country. In none of these cases, were the officers involved charged or indicted with any crimes and further investigations either proved their innocence or found inadequate evidence to charge them with any crimes.
This pattern finally changed with the sentencing of Derek Chauvin, but the trend of police brutality targeting minorities (and also non-minorities) seems to not have changed as a result of the BLM movement or Mr. Chauvin’s indictment. Although it may be true, that police officers may stop and think more about their actions while on the job with a new legitimate threat of being prosecuted now a possibility, most cases of officer-involved shootings either never see a trial or never result in a guilty verdict for the officer involved. The indictment and sentencing of a singular police officer in Minneapolis will not change the actions of the combined police forces of the country. For real change to take place, multiple topics must be confronted: Militarization of police forces, far-right sympathies in police forces, disconnection with the community at large, poorly trained officers and increased disciplinary consequences for poor police work. It cannot be up to a movement or to the courts to police the police, but instead the burden of change and improvement must be first placed on the police itself. Real change can only come from within, not from outside influences. Although this task is not easy or cheap, it is possible.
One place where a true model of police reform has really worked is in the city of Camden, New Jersey. Camden, a city of over 77.000 people located just east of Philadelphia, has been so notorious for its high crime and murder rate, that the name of the city itself has become a byword in American speech for any crime-infested city. But recently this trend has begun to change. In 2010, according to Politico, the Camden police force was largely broken. In a city where unemployment and poverty were everywhere (around 40% of the city lived below the poverty line), residents largely gave up on calling the police for minor crimes and the police was seen as not only unresponsive, but also corrupt. Investigations by the state of New Jersey seemed to back that up, as they found that unethical behavior played a part in at least 88 convictions in one year, leading to all of these convicted parties to be freed from imprisonment. It seemed that the Camden Police Department was beyond hope. Until the city’s leadership had a radical idea: Abolishing the police force and rebuilding it from the ground up. Using an unlikely alliance of Democratic city leaders, a Republican state governor and white and black community and business leaders, the police department in the run-down Philadelphia suburb was slowly rebuilt. Officers were better trained; de-escalation tactics became normalized and improved relations between the police and community became paramount (this even led to the Police Chief of Camden and the local chapter head of Black Lives Matter marching together during the marches for justice in the George Floyd case). The result has been a murder level that has dropped by 32%, robberies by 60%, burglaries dropping by 64% and violent crime overall dropping by 41% over the past decade, according to tapintocamden.net. If this kind of efficient and quick change can happen in a city whose name is tied with murder and crime, it can serve as a model for cities all over America.
The indictment and sentencing of Derek Chauvin are important moments in the history of relations between police and the community in the United States, but it is not, by itself, a significant moment, unless real change occurs. Real change requires hard work and tough decisions, it requires prudent inward reflection about the operational and systemic inadequacies present in nearly all police jurisdictions, small or large, around the country. The sentencing of Derek Chauvin can either become a lesson for cops around the country before they use lethal force on unarmed suspects, or it, along with the murder of George Floyd, can become a footnote in history, just another name on the list of black men and women murdered in their own country by the police sworn to protect them. Let us hope, for the sake of every American, that George Floyd’s death was not in vain.