During his closing argument, Steve Schleicher, one of the prosecutors trying the former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, insisted that jurors could convict Chauvin without convicting policing.
“This is not an anti-police prosecution,” Schleicher told the jury. “It’s a pro-police prosecution.”
For his part, Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, told the jury that “all of the evidence shows that Mr. Chauvin thought he was following his training. He was, in fact, following his training.”
Both were correct.
In May 2020, four days after the harrowing video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck while he begged for his life was first seen by the public, Chauvin became one of the few police officers ever indicted for killing someone in the line of duty. Yesterday, as my colleague David A. Graham wrote, he became one of the even fewer to be convicted.
The video of Floyd’s murder sparked what may have been the largest civil-rights protests in American history; it was the most consequential entry in a thick catalog of police abuses recorded by cellphone cameras. But whatever verdict the jury rendered, police advocates would have claimed victory. Chauvin’s acquittal would have reinforced the presumption that any use of force by a white police officer against a Black man is reasonable. His conviction, though, was swiftly claimed as affirmation that the current system is capable of dispensing justice. Shortly after the verdict was handed down, Patrick Yoes, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, declared that “our system of justice worked as it should.”
But the system seldom works this way. Police are rarely fired, let alone criminally convicted, for the use of force. Chauvin’s nonchalance in the video as Floyd begs for his life, and the apparent inaction of the officers around him, represent more than individual indifference to human life. They are a reflection of a system that rarely holds officers accountable for abusing their powers, and a society that expects police to dispense “rough justice.”
Police unions have successfully instituted rules that make it tremendously difficult for officers who abuse their powers to be fired. The doctrine of qualified immunity means that officers are very rarely liable in civil court for violations of Americans’ constitutional rights. Officers themselves are discouraged from speaking up about colleagues who regularly engage in such behavior, because they may be labeled rats and feel ostracized, and the officers they name are unlikely to face sanction anyway, rendering such courage both futile and self-destructive.
Although courts sometimes correct egregious abuses—they may exclude evidence that is unlawfully obtained or disregard forced confessions—most interactions between the public and officers who abuse their authority never see the inside of a courtroom. Instead, they take place in a legal nether-realm, where people who have committed no crime at all can be abused with impunity so long as no one whips out a cellphone camera. Indeed, if not for the bravery of Darnella Frazier, the teenager who recorded the video of Floyd’s arrest, his death might have been falsely attributed in official records to his “physically resist[ing]” officers. It might have simply been another in the hundreds of incidents in which officers in Minnesota used neck restraints on suspects.
There are significant systemic barriers to holding police accountable for misconduct, but there are also cultural ones. Many Americans want police to “rough up” those considered to be criminals or proximate to criminality—an expectation that has persisted for generations.
“Progressive reformers of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century … took aim at police corruption but often saw nothing wrong with encouraging officers to use their nightsticks liberally against criminals and reprobates,” the Stanford Law professor and former prosecutor David Alan Sklansky writes in A Pattern of Violence. “Newspapers praised ‘beneficial clubbing’ by the police. Many reformers linked police corruption with toleration of vice; they wanted the police to get tough with lawbreakers.”
That expectation swells during periods of rising crime. In the 1970s and ’80s, Sklansky writes, a “growing concern about violent crime” made “many people tolerant of, or even eager for, ‘rough tactics’ by the police. Just as in earlier eras, there was a growing sentiment that it was time for the police to take their gloves off.” When former President Donald Trump encouraged an audience of police on Long Island in 2017 to abuse suspects in their custody, the officers laughed because Trump was articulating that unstated expectation in his own blunt fashion.
There will be more Derek Chauvins, because his conviction alters nothing about this system. It does not change the fact that police who engage in such behavior can expect to rely on the silence of their colleagues, the elaborate protections established by legal doctrine and collective bargaining, and the quiet expectation that hurting the “right” people is an admirable part of the job. To the contrary: Powerful political actors are committed to ensuring that this system remains unchanged, some of whom are praising Chauvin’s conviction as justice being served.
After the verdict was announced, though, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson called Chauvin’s conviction an “attack on civilization.” And in this sense alone he was right: It is an attack on a certain idea of civilization when a white police officer is convicted for killing a Black man. America’s traditional racial hierarchy is eroded by the notion that the lives of two such people have equal value. For most of its existence, American law assumed, tacitly or explicitly, that such violence was how “civilization” was maintained, an assumption that shapes both politics and law enforcement to this day. The challenge for those disgusted by Chauvin’s conviction is to defend impunity for such violence as an essential part of their ideal society, without explicitly acknowledging its nature.
When Chauvin’s defense attorney said Chauvin was merely following his training, he may not have been strictly correct about Chauvin’s use of a particular neck restraint. But he was probably right that Chauvin was doing what he believed he was both allowed and expected to do. The next Chauvin will feel the same way. But next time, there may not be a brave person with a camera to bear unimpeachable witness.