A Step Forward Or An Anomaly?

JThe big story of the week just passed was without a doubt the verdict in the Derek Chauvin case…but was it really a verdict as in final? That is what I want to explore today.

Former Minneapolis police officer Chauvin is now a thrice convicted felon for murdering George Floyd while on duty in plain daylight while knowingly being taped. I’m not sure which word best sums up his actions: stupid or arrogant? He was clearly guilty but I along with almost everyone else was in doubt as to what the jury’s verdict would be based on the history of white police officers murdering Black people in America and skating.

I am among the many who doubt this verdict would have been reached if not for the passersby filming it and several police officers testifying against Chauvin. I doubt the “blue wall of silence” would have fallen sans the recording. I fear this verdict will be an anomaly; not a portend. Did Apple by virtue of the iPhone save America?

As police reform conversations suddenly got off the back burner in the Senate the bone of contention appears to be the qualified immunity that police officers currently enjoy. Considering the presumption of innocence and required level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in American criminal law why do the police need any further shield(s)? The answer is they don’t and I cannot believe I am alone in expecting those sworn to enforce the law to simultaneously obey it. By the very virtue of their job they should know the law better than the average citizen.

Sentencing is still about 8 weeks away and Chauvin’s three accomplices/enablers are still to go on trial. Chauvin’s most serious count calls for a maximum of 40 years. The normal guidelines, considering his lack of past criminal convictions, calls for a sentence in the range of 12 and one-half years. With time off for good behavior that can be as little as 8 years and three months. That is serious time but a pittance compared to a person’s life. This man was far from a model police officer. He averaged over a complaint per year of service and had two serious reprimands including an incident where he was alone in a bathroom with a suspect who ended up leaving said bathroom with an abdominal gunshot wound.

The defense painted George Floyd as less than a good guy, which was to at least some extent true; but Chauvin is far from a sterling example of a law enforcement officer. I think being a frontline cop is a tough job; one of the toughest in our society. The problems stem both from the top and within. The guys and gals in the street are given a lot of less than great laws to enforce – the fault of legislators – while their command spends most of its time in CYA mode. Training and academies aside there is a culture of racial, gender and assorted other bias on every major police force. Couple that with the “us against them” attitude ingrained from the academy to the streets and we wonder why there is a problem. Officers who break the code of silence face real threats on the job. In dangerous situations the street officer often puts their life in the hands of a partner(s). What happens if that partner turns a convenient blind eye?

The most encouraging sign I saw was the Justice Department announcing an investigation into the policies and practices of the Minneapolis Police Department. That can end in a consent agreement where the feds basically come in and force changes that just may stick.

Aside from the conversation in the Capital – which I have adopted a wait and see attitude toward – the reaction of the Republicans at the state level has been one of cracking down on those who bring attention to problems. Republicans in 34 state legislatures have introduced laws to crack down on protesters. I don’t know about you but this makes me think more of Hong Kong, Russia and Tiananmen Square than America. In Florida the gerrymandered legislature has already passed a law which Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has signed that holds a driver who plows his vehicle into a group of protesters harmless from criminal liability. This bill was Florida HB 1. That means it was the first bill introduced in the Republican controlled state legislature. That tells me where Florida Republicans priorities are.

I ask you to remember two things. First, this is exactly the strategy that Middle Eastern inspired terrorists have used successfully in Europe. But then again are they really that different from our domestic right wing terrorists? Second, it is protests that kept this case in the news for the eleven months it took to come to trial. I believe in the First Amendment even when it is inconvenient for me; but then again, I’m an American first – in reality not just rhetoric.

The problem is much larger than George Floyd and Derek Chauvin; they were just the “poster boys” of the moment. This verdict was a step forward but we are far from establishing an equitable and workable system of justice in America. Much remains to be done to meet that goal.

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