What Chauvin did was wrong whether there were cameras there to record it or not. But I do not believe Chauvin would have even been charged but for (1) the number of witnesses and their videos, and (2) the particularly gruesome way that Chauvin killed George Floyd. And the conviction was hardly a given as polling showed that a lot of Americans still sided with Chauvin even after seeing all of the videos. The polls are significant because the decision is made by a jury of citizens who are similar to the people polled.
Some have argued that this case marks the end of the code of silence among police officers because of the number officers who testified against Chauvin. Absolutely not.
This was an exceptional prosecution of an exceptional case. Most prosecutors offices are too closely allied with local police officers and bend over backwards to help officers avoid accountability. Most cases will have a victim’s word (and sometimes not even that if it is a death case) against the word of an officer because other officers will remain silent. In the murder trial of Chauvin a need for self-preservation by the police, and not a commitment to justice, likely motivate the late-coming outspokenness of local officers.
There are countless victims of police brutality each year and nearly all of the officers involved are never held accountable. That reality is borne out by the data. And that reality will continue even after the Chauvin conviction.
The police departments will never voluntarily reform themselves. How many reforms of policing have been advanced in any state by the police themselves?
Policing is a secure career that is projected to continue growing regardless of the crime levels. The salary is higher than for most jobs in America. The benefits, including an earlier retirement age, are great. The barriers to entry are generally very low (a high school diploma to a four year college degree). Job performance does not impact job security. When crime goes up that isn’t seen as a failure of policing. Doing a poor job often brings more, not fewer, resources to police departments. And there is zero accountability in most jurisdictions for abuses of power and for mistakes. The system is working for police officers.
In my network of friends and neighbors I’ve seen celebration around the conviction of Chauvin. “Justice is done” people say. “The system works” they exclaim. I get it. I felt some sense of relief too. But if this outcome serves to absolve us of any additional work to bring accountability to policing, then we are once again exercising our privilege.
For Black people, and also for other minorities and for the poor, they will continue to have their communities over-policed, their civil rights will continue to be violated, and police brutality will go one. Between the time George Floyd was murdered by former officer Chauvin and the recent guilty verdict there have been many other victims of police brutality. How many of the offending police officers have been held accountable? The answer: few if any.
Creating accountability will require that people who are rarely impacted by issues of over-policing, civil rights violations, or brutality step up. Without them nothing will change.
Right now there is a need for Illinoisans to step up in support of pending legislation that will bring accountability to policing. In the Illinois General Assembly HB 1727 – Bad Apples in Law Enforcement Accountability Act of 2021 – is now being considered. It is facing severe pushback from police unions. You can learn more about the bill on another blog post by clicking here.
Creating accountability in policing is about helping good officers and helping the public. The enemies are Chauvin and the many others who intentionally, or because of incompetence, violate rights and engage in abusive tactics. The enemies are also those who remain silent and allow bad apples to remain on the job. One cannot be a good apple if he or she ignores the bad apples in his or her ranks.