Updated at 1:50 p.m. ET on June 13, 2020.
The American criminal-justice system rests on the principle that no one is above the law, and certainly not the police officers who are entrusted to enforce it. But someone seems to have forgotten to explain that to the police.
Police brutality, much of it directed at black Americans and other people of color, has long been a part of American history. And now, thanks to the increased presence of cameras, more of the public is witnessing the violence—and its brazenness—for themselves. The police don’t seem to care who sees them. This attitude was on full display in the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd, in view of one bystander who was recording him with a cellphone camera and many others who were imploring him to stop driving his knee into Floyd’s neck, which he did for nearly nine minutes. Police officers throughout the country then reacted to the nationwide protests that followed Floyd’s death by engaging in unabashed assaults—many of them televised—on members of the public, including attacking reporters, driving two police cars into a crowd of demonstrators, pepper-spraying protesters in the face, and shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground, leaving him bleeding from a serious head injury.* Federal law-enforcement officers also joined in, opening fire with tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd of lawfully assembled demonstrators (and journalists from all over the world) in front of the White House, possibly at the direction of the attorney general.
I prosecuted police for misconduct at the Justice Department for 15 years, until 2017, and while my colleagues and I won many difficult convictions, the shamelessness of these recent events has driven home to me that we—and our state and local counterparts—should have tried to win many more, even before the advent of President’s Donald Trump’s open encouragement of lawless policing. Prosecutions send a message, in a way that nothing else can, that police officers will risk significant personal consequences (like a prison sentence) when they violate the laws everyone else is required to obey.