Opinion

The incomplete justice of the Chauvin verdict

One case won't end police brutality and misconduct

In a span of two minutes, the judge read and verified the verdicts: Guilty on all counts. Sentencing may not come for a while yet, but former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter for his actions in the death of George Floyd last spring.

This is good news, and it stands in such sharp contrast to the conclusion of similar cases over the past decade. Eric Garner was killed by police in New York City in 2014, crying that he could not breathe, recorded on soon-to-be-viral video, and his death never saw real justice. Floyd's death was an ugly echo of Garner's six years later, but his killer — his murderer, we may now legally say — has been duly convicted in a court of law. The decision won't restore Floyd to his family, but it is a closer approximation of justice than families like Garner's ever received.

That contrast is instructive. On the side of hope, there is the sheer fact of the verdict. It says police officers are not above the law, that kneeling on a distraught, unarmed man's back until he is dead is felony assault even when the perpetrator is a cop, that the uniform does not magically exempt police from the moral and legal standards of the communities they patrol. It was facilitated by a county attorney's office willing to aggressively prosecute a cop and by a police chief who testified against his own former officer, breaking the "blue wall of silence."

But the echo still pealed, and the verdict wasn't certain. For all the marches and petitions and legislation, those six years didn't bring enough change to forestall Floyd's murder, and Chauvin's conviction was far from guaranteed. I didn't expect it myself (not for second-degree murder, anyway) because the restraint Chauvin used was explicitly permitted by the Minneapolis Police Department at the time. In fact, I still wonder if there's a chance Chauvin could escape some or all of these convictions on appeal. (The judge in the case does too.)

So what happens now? Here in the Twin Cities, maybe we can finally untense our shoulders. There has been a sense of battening down the hatches in recent weeks. The closest police station to my house is ringed with barricades and razor wire. Many small businesses on our main commercial strip have again boarded up their windows — if indeed they ever took the plywood down. Friends have been talking about stocking up on groceries to avoid going out if there were an acquittal. The immediate response locally, in my observation, is a deep feeling of relief. The weather is warming. The pandemic is waning. The verdict is in. The lakes are lovely. Can we finally take a breath?

But just over a week ago, Daunte Wright was killed by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, an inner-ring suburb on the north border of Minneapolis. It's a reminder, if we needed one, that the echo can peal again if more does not change. Here too there are reasons to be hopeful, however. Floyd's death and the protests which followed have already occasioned a long list of reforms in local and state policing policy around the country. Meaningful federal-level progress has been slower, but it's also typically less important for criminal justice issues than movement at these lower levels of government.

We've seen big shifts in the national conversation around policing, too. "Before last year, reforms such as ending no-knock raids or abolishing qualified immunity were discussed only at the fringes of public debate," wrote The Washington Post's Radley Balko earlier this month. "Today, lawmakers across the country are enacting both. In 2020, police reform, drug decriminalization, and criminal justice reform won nearly everywhere they were on the ballot. Just last week, Virginia, the capital of the former Confederacy, abolished the death penalty."

Strong majorities of Americans now support banning police chokeholds, creating a national registry for police with a history of misconduct, requiring police body cameras, ending mandatory minimum sentencing, and ending qualified immunity. That isn't solely due to Floyd's murder, but a lot has changed from just one case.

And yet it is just one case. The prosecution was right, in a way, that for all its national import, Chauvin's trial was "not about all police or all policing." This verdict might suggest caution to some otherwise reckless police officers, but it won't directly change any use-of-force policies or state laws. It will have limited value as legal precedent because qualified immunity is still with us. There is much work still to be done to curtail police brutality and misconduct of all kinds, and it will be a slow, piecemeal work, done city by city and state by state. This verdict in Minneapolis should encourage us in the task.

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