Our national unity requires police officers to be better.
In a strict legal sense, the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd was about a single action by a single man.
During the three-week trial, prosecutors argued that Chauvin recklessly knelt on Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes, killing him. In an effort to create reasonable doubt, Chauvin’s defense lawyers argued that Chauvin acted reasonably and that Floyd’s health conditions, drug use and other factors caused his death.
Late Tuesday, after about 11 hours of deliberation, jurors found that Chauvin’s deadly force warranted a verdict of guilty of all three counts: second-degree murder; third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Jurors have spoken as the system of justice requires. But beyond the verdict is the trauma many minority communities feel from decades of toxic interactions with law enforcement. Floyd’s life ended during a confrontation over an investigation of Floyd’s passing of a counterfeit $20 bill.
For some Americans, the sight of police lights in the rearview mirror might spark worry that their safe driver discount could be at risk. For all too many black men and women, mindful of decades of toxic interactions, the fear is that an interaction gone bad could cost them their life.
The American public has learned in the past year what minority communities have known for decades — that encounters with police often end in violence when other alternatives exist. And that has led to tremendous distrust, anger and frustration that benefit neither police nor communities.
As a nation, we must create better, more responsive police forces that embrace accountability, better training of officers to de-escalate potentially volatile moments and recognize that an officer with a gun is not always the right response to all situations.
Since Floyd’s tragic death, many police departments have rightly reminded officers that they have a sworn duty to intervene when they see their partners using force recklessly or otherwise abusing their powers. An officer who puts on the badge should know what is right and wrong and should have protections against retaliation for calling out fellow officers who violate rights. Likewise, cities and police departments must have the authority and the will to discipline officers who deserve to be suspended, dismissed or prosecuted.
On this latter point, the Chauvin verdict is historic. Testimony at trial broke the thin blue line of police departments closing ranks in defense of their brethren. Minneapolis’ police chief and a training officer both testified that Chauvin’s behavior to restrain Floyd went well beyond the department’s policies and procedures. And that is an important admission and step toward shattering the destructive culture of police unaccountability.
More must be done to end toxic interactions, biased assumptions and inappropriate behavior that produce adversarial attitudes between law enforcement and minority communities. Policing is most effective when officers know their beat, are available to residents at times other than a police call, and have developed a departmentwide culture that has earned officers the support of neighbors. Crime is inevitable and police need to address it. But communities also need officers who can serve and protect with honor and fairness and reject the urban warrior mentality that fuels tensions.
These are key elements of how policing in America must change and how police forces must rid themselves of officers who don’t abide by human decency and respect in their interactions. Policing in America must be different in the future from what it has been for decades.
We also must recognize that the outcome of Chauvin’s trial most likely would have been different if not for the video that showed Chauvin’s callousness, Floyd crying out for his mother with his last gasps of air, and bystanders warning Chauvin that Floyd, handcuffed prone on the ground with a knee on his neck, was dying.
At best the outcome of this trial must be seen as an early stage in the nation’s reckoning with social justice issues, not the end of the journey. Officers must be held to a high standard of conduct, removed for bad behavior and imprisoned when they abuse their badge. There is nothing easy about being a cop in America today, but authority comes with responsibility and accountability. Wearing a badge is an honor, and it’s a commitment to serve and protect with respect.
The nation remains divided on issues of social justice and policing, and that division will not be resolved with this verdict alone. Progress has to begin somewhere, and here progress began with a guilty verdict.
— THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS