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Derek Chauvin’s conviction shouldn’t obscure how broken our criminal justice system is

A criminal justice expert explains how Chauvin’s conviction could undermine broader efforts for police reform.

Chicago demonstrator holds sign reading “Get your knees off our necks”
In the lead-up to the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer now convicted of the murder of George Floyd, demonstrators gathered in various cities around America. Here, protesters in Chicago marched on March 8.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

While Americans waited Tuesday for the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, Fordham Law professor and prominent criminologist John Pfaff tweeted something grim.

He wondered: Would a conviction, “however much justice demands it,” actually be a step forward?

“Would an acquittal here,” Pfaff continued, “push more people to demand more radical change? Does a conviction lead too many to think ‘the system corrects itself.’ Or... not?”

An hour later, Chauvin was found guilty on three separate charges: Second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. The verdict, Floyd’s brother Philonise said, meant he and their family are finally “able to breathe again.” But even as the family said the fight for systemic change must go on, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) said the verdict was proof “the justice system works” and Axios reported that senior Democratic and Republican aides said “the convictions have lessened pressure for change.”

I spoke with Pfaff about his concerns about how a conviction could undercut broader police and criminal justice reform efforts — concerns that evoke a complicated debate about how to square broader social reform with the individual need for justice for Floyd. Especially as elected officials like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey made widely panned statements insinuating that Floyd was a sacrifice to better Minneapolis and the nation.

“There’s this sort of individualistic approach that says when someone does something wrong, we’ll punish them,” Pfaff argues. “But seeing the conviction as a success ignores the fact that Chauvin should perhaps never have been a police officer to begin with or, if he was, he should never have been going after a $20 bill in this way — in every way the system failed. While punishing Chauvin is critical and essential accountability for the harm that he did, it doesn’t address the bigger systemic failings that got us here.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jerusalem Demsas

Talk to me about your tweet. Why did you start grappling with what an acquittal or conviction would mean for the broader criminal justice fight?

John Pfaff

A guilty verdict was essential in this case for many reasons, but I think it’s very essential also to understand how limited an accomplishment it is and how limited an outcome it is. It provides much-needed accountability for one particular person who did one specifically bad thing. But I get concerned it will be seen that somehow in this situation our institutions actually worked.

And what I was wrestling with is that the risk that seeing the conviction as the system working frames as individualistic something that is much more systemic. That to react after the harm has happened somehow makes up for the fact that we never took the necessary steps to prevent that in the first place.

[TV producer] Dick Wolf’s whole career has been built around “law and order” and “Chicago Fire” — not around Health and Human Services and Chicago Department of Buildings. We glorify the fact that once we failed to provide the services and someone is dead, the police heroically show up and solve that problem.

Jerusalem Demsas

You mentioned in your tweet “demanding more radical change.” What do you think is necessary here? What does accountability look like if it’s not just that Derek Chauvin and others who might be implicated in the death of George Floyd are convicted?

John Pfaff

I think one struggle we have culturally when thinking about what reform should look like is that we have such a narrow, blinkered view of what accountability looks like. The only form of accountability we feel comfortable with is punishment. We definitely want Chauvin to take accountability for his actions, but accountability is also the system taking a look at itself and saying, “This is what we should have done better.”

So we’ve shown that we can correct our mistakes, but how do you make sure that there isn’t a future officer to correct? Whether it’s training differently or removing entire swaths of responsibility away from police to begin with. Our view of accountability is just far too narrow and far too individualistic.

The system is so big and so sprawling and so uncoordinated and decentralized that any sort of small change you make adapts to it and keeps lumbering mindlessly, decentralized-ly, on the direction it’s going. Real change requires much more of a fundamental upheaval. There’s some concern that these convictions can almost work against that. They can reinforce this sense that these incremental steps get things better and better.

Obviously, an acquittal tonight would have been hugely counterproductive also. It certainly would have led to protests, and protests that would have gotten violent. And I know you cited Omar Wasow’s work the other day [that violent protests in the past shifted whites toward voting for Republicans and shifted news agendas, elite discourse, and public concern toward “social control,” not reform] — those kinds of protests only make the system more repressive and more reactionary.

So, what a path is toward a more fundamental upheaval is not something I have an answer for. But I also have increasingly understood that incremental reforms may make things slightly better but will keep us in the current general universe that we’re in that’s just not working.

Jerusalem Demsas

Axios just reported that Democratic and Republican senior aides say that the conviction means there’s less likely to be action at the federal level. Is that the sort of response you’re concerned about?

John Pfaff

Putting aside whether I think there’s much the feds can do, that’s the exact attitude I’m worried about. That we’re going to look at this trial and say that our current system works, or we say this one bad apple does this really bad thing the courts can come in and fix it. But the expression is “one bad apple ruins the bunch.”

What you see in Axios’s reporting is exactly the fear I have. There’s this sort of individualistic approach saying when someone does something wrong, we’ll punish them. But seeing the conviction as a success ignores the fact that Chauvin should perhaps never have been a police officer to begin with or, if he was, he should never have been going after a $20 bill in this way — in every way the system failed. While punishing Chauvin is critical and essential accountability for the harm that he did, it doesn’t address the bigger systemic failings that got us here.

Jerusalem Demsas

There’s this tension here where we’re talking about both this individual person, George Floyd, who was murdered, and we have a system of justice that is set up to provide some sort of recompense for that. And then there’s this larger conversation about what that death can turn into or what it can or should mean. And people often cringe away from that because it dehumanizes the individual.

How do we reconcile the fact that this is both an intensely personal individual decision about one man’s murder and also that it has had massive implications for criminal justice reform in this country? The largest movement in American history happened last year following George Floyd’s death. So how do we think about those things?

John Pfaff

It’s challenging. I think sometimes economists — and this is where I come from — tend to err on the side of reducing the humanity of people away to these broader policy questions, and that’s not okay. George Floyd’s death demanded accountability from the person who killed him. But that’s a much different question from, “What does justice demand from the situation?” So we can say that accountability was achieved today. Accountability for the death of a person, a man, a son, and someone whose life had meaning and was taken away.

But that doesn’t get us to justice. Justice is something bigger and more systemic, and it demands something more radical and transformative. I do think the way we choose to talk about things can be incredibly important. Words matter. There is something important in what happened today, but we need to frame it correctly — to understand just how much wasn’t accomplished.

The micro-level accountability did take place, and that is something that is truly important. But it would be just as dehumanizing to try to claim it was anything more. Because to claim it is something more is to put more Black men at risk of being killed down the line. We don’t know who they are yet but if we treat this as too big a win, their lives are put in jeopardy as well.

Jerusalem Demsas

One of the big theses you’ve worked on is that ending mass incarceration means we have to be more lenient with violent criminals. The amount of nonviolent criminals is just not the driver of mass incarceration. How do we think about that in relation to wanting to convict and sentence police officers who kill civilians?

John Pfaff

The people who lead and serve in [police] abolitionist projects have been consistent that we need accountability but also that locking up the police doesn’t solve this. The goal is not to lock up a different set of people. I don’t see myself as an abolitionist ... but if they give Chauvin 25 or 30 years, that would still, I would argue, be excessive. I said it’s excessive for other cases, it would be excessive for this one too.

Language matters. This isn’t about being lenient towards people who commit violent crimes, we should think differently about what accountability means. It may not necessarily be more lenient — plenty of people who have gone through restorative justice programs have said it’s almost harder than prison. You’re forced to sit there with the people you’ve hurt and talk about what you’ve done and what the consequences of your behavior are for them and their families. That’s really hard. That’s not necessarily lenient, it’s just different. It doesn’t have that retributive edge to it that we sometimes view as essential.

When you punish your own children — I don’t lock my kids in their room for three days and say anything less than that is “lenient.” What helps my son understand what he did and take responsibility for that? We have internalized so deeply the sense that the prison and the police officer — that’s where everything starts and stops — that anything else feels lenient, even if it might accomplish deeper forms of accountability and justice more successfully.