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Why Chauvin’s conviction matters

In America, police are rarely held accountable.

Derek Chauvin has been found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter and could face up to 40 years in prison.
Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Derek Chauvin verdict has been nearly a year in the making. Footage of the murder of George Floyd last May has been viewed by millions worldwide, sparking ongoing international protests against police brutality and igniting policy changes to reform and reimagine the role of police. Though the amount of video footage of the killing was unprecedented and the momentum for justice was undeniable, history did not necessarily point to an easy conviction.

The former Minneapolis police officer was found guilty of all three charges — second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. That’s rare in a system where it’s uncommon to prosecute police for killing someone, let alone convict them. For example, only seven police officers have been convicted of murder for police shootings since 2005. The law favors police — giving them latitude to use force — plus, Americans, including jurors, tend to trust police officers.

As Chris Slobogin, the director of the criminal justice program at Vanderbilt University, told Vox, “The jury is composed of citizens of the community who want the police to protect them.”

For this reason, Chauvin’s conviction is significant. The jury’s decision proves that they believed Chauvin acted far outside his duties as a police officer sworn to protect and serve the community.

But as the prosecution noted in its closing statement, the trial was between the state and the defendant — not between the state and policing. Whether the verdict will lead to greater police accountability and build on the momentum ignited by Floyd’s death remains to be seen.

The Derek Chauvin trial and verdict, briefly explained

At the core of the trial was the video of Floyd’s death: Floyd pleading with officers, saying 27 times he couldn’t breathe, a crowd of bystanders growing over the nine minutes and 29 seconds in which Chauvin held Floyd down. Jurors must have watched the fatal encounter and various angles of it — a combination of bystander cellphone video, store and street surveillance footage, and police body camera video — more than three dozen times.

Aside from the power of the footage itself, the prosecution provided a strong case, legal experts noted. Beginning on March 29, the prosecution called a total of 38 witnesses, kicking off the trial with the emotional testimony from about a dozen bystanders who witnessed the murder firsthand.

An image from a police body camera shows bystanders filming as police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on George Floyd’s neck.
Minneapolis Police Department/AP

Darnella Frazier, the teenager who filmed the viral video of Floyd’s death, testified to how she saw her Black father, brothers, and uncles in Floyd. Frazier’s 9-year-old cousin, who was also present at the scene, testified to feeling “sad” and “mad” that Chauvin was hurting Floyd. Other witnesses also broke down in tears as they recounted what they saw that day, including 61-year-old bystander Charles McMillian and Genevieve Hansen, an off-duty firefighter who attempted to render aid to Floyd.

The prosecution also presented nearly a dozen police officers who testified that Chauvin’s force was excessive and unnecessary, including Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who called what Chauvin did “murder.” Arradondo, along with other officers, claimed that department policy includes deescalation and conflict resolution tactics that Chauvin did not employ. As legal experts noted, that so many officers testified against Chauvin was rare.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testifies.
Court TV/AP

Meanwhile, the medical experts who testified for the prosecution argued that it was Chauvin’s actions that caused Floyd’s heart to stop. Pulmonary and critical care physician Martin Tobin said that Floyd died from a low level of oxygen, which caused arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat. Andrew Baker, the medical examiner who deemed Floyd’s death a homicide, cited Chauvin’s restraint and neck compression as the actions that caused Floyd’s heart, enlarged by a severe underlying disease, to beat faster and eventually stop.

Ultimately, prosecutors were able to successfully portray Chauvin as an officer who went against police protocol and used force that was disproportionate to any threat that Floyd posed — and that Chauvin’s knee was a significant factor in stopping Floyd’s heart.

The defense, on the other hand, tried to argue that it was Floyd’s drug use, underlying health conditions, and carbon monoxide from the squad car’s exhaust pipe that contributed to Floyd’s death, not Chauvin’s use of force. Defense attorney Eric J. Nelson also argued that the crowd of bystanders prevented Chauvin from caring for Floyd because they caused a distraction. But in the end, the defense’s two days of testimony from just seven witnesses was not enough to convince jurors that Chauvin was not a factor in Floyd’s death.

Second-degree unintentional murder was the most serious charge of the three that prosecutors presented to jurors, meaning he caused Floyd’s death while committing assault; with that alone, Chauvin could face up to 40 years in prison. He was also convicted of the lesser offenses of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

During the trial, jurors were instructed to stay away from the news and any outside information about the trial. In the background, however, community tensions over police accountability only grew. At the start of week three of the trial, a police officer shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright just 10 miles from where the trial was taking place. Businesses and government buildings in downtown Minneapolis have been boarded up due to the protests in response to Wright’s killing and the impending verdict in the high-profile trial.

While we don’t know much about the jurors, we do know they were uncharacteristically diverse — one Black woman, three Black men, two multiracial women, four white women, and two white men. The jury questionnaire revealed that the jurors had mixed views on the police, Black Lives Matter, and “blue lives matter,” with some of the jurors saying they wanted to hear more about Minneapolis police training and whether Chauvin’s restraint was within protocol.

For Floyd’s family, a conviction represents an end, if not necessarily the end. Ahead of the trial’s conclusion, Floyd’s brother Philonise Floyd told reporters: “After we get the verdict and we get this conviction, we’ll be able to breathe.”

From left, attorney Ben Crump, Philonise Floyd, and Rev. Al Sharpton pray alongside other family members of George Floyd and Daunte Wright on April 19 in Minneapolis.
Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Overall, justice will take more than one conviction. Justice means addressing — and finding real solutions to — the larger systemic issues in policing, and maybe even abolishing the institution itself.

“What we cannot do is rest all of our hopes on the trial when, in essence, what we’re talking about is a system that makes this behavior permissible in the first place,” Seft Hunter, director of Black-led organizing for the social justice organization Community Change, told Vox ahead of the verdict. “The very structure that brought us to this moment remains intact and will again bring us to similar moments in the future.”

The problems with policing are vast and still need immediate attention

The problems with policing don’t begin and end with Derek Chauvin.

As the past few weeks alone have shown, these problems exist in Chicago, where, hours before the Chauvin trial began, a police officer shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo in the chest as the boy raised his hands. And in Maryland, where, as the trial approached its conclusion, police shot and killed 16-year-old Peyton Ham, who was holding a toy gun. And they certainly exist around the area where Floyd was killed, with the recent killing of 20-year-old Wright just outside Minneapolis.

Over the past five years, police have killed an average of three people per day, according to Mapping Police Violence. The specter of death at the hands of the police is a particularly vivid one for Black men; one 2019 study found that Black men have about a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by police. So rapid are these shootings that the deaths, anger, and calls for justice begin to feel cyclic. Legal proceedings against one former officer often cannot conclude before the next case begins.

Chauvin’s conviction represents an interruption of that cycle — it is an anomaly. But it doesn’t mean the cycle is over. Or that all want it to end: An April Vox/Data for Progress poll found 77 percent of likely voters would like to see more officers on patrol in their neighborhoods, while an April Quinnipiac University poll found that 55 percent of Americans approve of how police officers currently do their jobs.

Despite this, Floyd’s killing had a momentous impact. It led millions to join the calls of activists and disproportionately affected communities in advocating for major changes to policing and the criminal justice system. There was a broad awakening that policing was problematic, with months of protests that led to an expansive view of what solutions might be possible, including the beginnings of real policy change.

Some advocates have proposed reforming police departments more broadly, with stronger federal oversight that would provide Justice Department supervision of state and local policing; others have pushed to ban certain techniques and practices, like warrants that allow police to enter homes without knocking or policies that allow officers to shoot at moving vehicles. And there have been numerous local reform wins across the country over the past year, including expanded oversight boards in Oakland and San Francisco as well as new use of force policies in states like Massachusetts and Colorado.

Others, though, want to go further.

In the wake of Floyd’s death, there have been growing demands to reform, defund, and abolish the police.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Following Floyd’s death, the movement to defund the police rose to prominence — essentially, taking financial resources from departments and reinvesting them in other areas, including education, housing, and social services. The idea was, and still is, the subject of great debate.

Numerous polls have found little support for the idea when respondents were asked specifically about the term “defunding the police”; a March USA Today/Ipsos poll, for instance, found 18 percent of Americans back it. But just as many polls have found support for the idea behind it: In the same poll, respondents were also asked if they support reallocating police funds — which is the same thing as defunding — and more said they did. More recently, Vox/Data for Progress asked the same question and found most likely voters in support of defunding: 63 percent.

This growing awareness and support, and the work of organizers, has already led some cities to begin early experiments with defunding, and some activists hope that the high-profile nature of this trial could lead to more.

Los Angeles voters approved a defunding measure in the 2020 election, and the city council there recently approved the transfer of $32 million to programs that provide alternatives to policing as well as public health initiatives. Baltimore cut $22 million from its police budget, hoping to fund community programming and spur economic development. Other cities, including Las Vegas, Austin, New Orleans, and Seattle, have reduced their budgets as well.

Meanwhile, some cities, like Ithaca, New York, have proposed completely reconfiguring their police departments, bundling them with other departments more focused on work like mental health.

Minneapolis, where Chauvin was convicted, has embarked on a similar project following a pledge by the majority of its city council to “dismantle” the police department and replace it with a new department with a broader skill set — an initiative voters are expected to weigh in on during November’s municipal elections.

In the wake of not only Floyd’s death but also the recent police killings of Toledo and Wright, there have been growing demands to abolish police altogether. As Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) — a longtime advocate for changing policing — wrote in response to Wright’s killing, there needs to be “No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can’t be reformed.”

While abolishing the police literally means what it sounds like — getting rid of the police — that’s not to say, as some abolition opponents do, that there would be no systems for service and protection under a police-free state. There could still be mental health professionals for crises and negotiators for noise complaints and detectives to solve murders. There just wouldn’t be armed individuals roaming the streets allowed to kill, assault, and harm people with near impunity.

“We have dismantled systems that were older and more ingrained in society [than] policing,” activist and artist Bree Newsome wrote recently. “If we can end things like monarchal rule and the slave trade, we can end policing.”

George Floyd’s death shed new light on the need to change policing

Conversations about increasing the resources put into public health, about defunding and abolishing the police, were happening prior to George Floyd’s death. But they weren’t happening with the level of intensity, or with the seriousness, that they are happening now. Cities weren’t dismantling their police departments, and massive spending bills didn’t have funding for municipalities to try out taking mental health crisis duties away from officers.

The viral video of Floyd’s murder has fundamentally altered the way Americans think about the police. It also appears to have weighed heavily on the jurors’ minds, yielding an uncommon outcome.

With Chauvin now convicted, the efforts of activists will continue, as will experiments around defunding and alternatives to policing. Tensions around the trial and other recent incidents of police violence have only furthered demands for change.

As D.A. Bullock, a member of the Minneapolis-based civil rights organization Reclaim the Block, told Vox, “True justice really looks like this never happening again.”

The intersection of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street, also known as George Floyd Square, in Minneapolis on April 6.
Joshua Lott/The Washington Post/Getty Images

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