Last year, the world watched as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin suffocated George Floyd in broad daylight over the course of nine-plus minutes. Last month, the world watched again as a jury assembled in a Minneapolis courtroom to return their verdict in the resulting prosecution — announcing to the great relief of many that they had found Chauvin guilty of murder.
After seeing too many examples of police officers killing unarmed people on camera and escaping accountability, this case is a step forward — and not just because it resulted in an incredibly rare conviction of an officer.
Here, we saw some breaks in the often insurmountable “blue code of silence” that makes police-killing cases so challenging to prosecute: multiple law enforcement officers and leaders, including from Chauvin’s own department, came forward to call out and condemn his actions. We saw the community as a whole step forward and bear witness to this tragic event and refuse to allow it to go unaddressed: members of the community demonstrated the ability to force change even within deeply entrenched systems, they documented this crime, and they ensured that the footage would be seen, and not forgotten or ignored, across the world.
And we saw jurors — especially white individuals who are disproportionately represented on juries and who often regard police officers as untouchable beacons of credibility — return a murder conviction after less than one day of deliberation.
The Chauvin case reminds us that these prosecutions can be successful, just as it appropriately focused widespread attention on the longstanding and deeper failings of policing. Perhaps some will argue (or hope) that the verdict will deter police officers from using needless and deadly force. But this case should also remind us that convictions and even prison sentences are not the long-term solution. Punishment is not the same as justice or even accountability.
Policing in the U.S. needs a systemic transformation. George Floyd’s killing was not an isolated incident and Chauvin was not an aberrant “bad apple.” Excessive force, violence and racial bias are deeply ingrained in America’s policing system. Officers are trained to see threats around every corner and always be ready to kill. Like too many Americans, they have come to view Black people with suspicion and fear.
Moreover, police departments have spent decades transforming themselves into armies, stocking up on military-style equipment including tanks, combat gear, and weapons. Also, police are asked to respond to many situations that require support and treatment rather than a gun and handcuffs — including people experiencing mental-health crises or simply struggling with the manifestations of poverty. In the face of these starting points, it should be no surprise that police in the U.S. now kill an average of three people per day.
To prevent these tragedies from continuing, we have to demand more than individual prosecutions and convictions after-the-fact. We must recognize that we significantly overuse police as our default response to problems they are ill-equipped to handle. Indeed, the very presence of armed officers often escalates problems. By developing alternative ways to help people experiencing mental-health crises, problematic substance use and lack of housing, we can prevent many of these flashpoints from occurring in the first place.
Second, we need to root out the systemic problems in policing that allow misconduct to fester and escalate. We should have zero tolerance for dishonesty and develop peer intervention models that encourage officers to take action when they see misconduct, thereby breaking down codes of silence. We must develop early warning systems so that it doesn’t take repeated acts of misconduct and eventual killings to dismiss officers who don’t deserve a badge and gun. And we must address union protections that shield officers from accountability and routinely put bad officers back on the job after they have been fired.
Local- and state-level reforms are critical, but with new leadership in Washington amid unprecedented support for policing reform, the federal government is particularly well-poised to lead on these issues. It should start by developing a national use-of-force standard that that defines acceptable responses, creates a line in the sand that bars improper conduct including chokeholds, strangleholds and shooting at moving vehicles, and makes clear that lethal force is to be used only as a last resort when other options fail.
Government also should limit the power of qualified immunity to protect police officers from accountability, develop robust accreditation standards for local policing departments and hold them to these standards, and create a national misconduct registry to ensure that those who are dismissed by one department are not rehired by another. Legislation is pending in Congress that seeks to advance these and other long overdue changes — and there are detailed blueprints that delineate concrete and detailed policy recommendations needed to address police misconduct and racial injustice. What has been missing is action.
When police wrongdoing does occur, we need to ensure that we have strong tools to hold officers accountable. State and local prosecutors should have sufficient resources to vigorously investigate and successfully prosecute incidents of police misconduct. The U.S. Department of Justice must also work to hold local police agencies accountable for systemic problems through pattern-or-practice investigations and consent decrees that the Biden-Harris administration has resurrected. Plus, communities should have a place at this table in the form of community review boards and other community-based oversight mechanisms.
It took months of painstaking work and worldwide protests to arrive at Chauvin’s guilty verdict, yet most police killings won’t be this clear-cut. They won’t be caught on video, or they’ll happen in a quick moment that requires a “snap” decision, or the victim will be armed. In many cases, the use of lethal force will comply with the local department’s policies and training. These cases will be murkier and fail to provoke uniform outrage or loud calls for accountability.
That’s the problem: Even when officers follow the rules, people still needlessly die all too often. Americans deserve to live in a country that has invested in figuring out how to respond to crises without defaulting to force or violence. All of us deserve access to resources and support to prevent crises — and deaths at the hands of police — from happening in the first place. To get there, we need far more than individual prosecutions or guilty verdicts; we need to rebuild the system from the ground up. There is no time to waste; lives hang in the balance.
Miriam Aroni Krinsky is executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former federal prosecutor.
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