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The Police Reform Movement Transcends Derek Chauvin’s Trial

Progress may be slow, but there is no going back from Minneapolis, writes Brennan Center Fellow Andrew Cohen.

March 30, 2021
Floyd protest
Kent Nishimura/Getty

Crim­inal trials in Amer­ica are never an earn­est search for the truth. They cannot be. The Consti­tu­tion and the rules of crim­inal proced­ure forbid it. Instead they are imper­fect tests of evid­ence and stam­ina and stand­ards that unfold in an unreal­istic world in which the defend­ant and the public are asked to believe that judges and jurors (and prosec­utors and cops) don’t bring their biases with them to work. At their best, crim­inal trials are revel­at­ory for the small details that emerge in testi­mony that may fill in the blanks in the story of the case. At their worst, crim­inal trials are frauds that gener­ate a result but not nearly the answers we seek.

It’s import­ant to keep these low expect­a­tions in mind as you follow the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chau­vin that began in Minneapolis this week. We already know the truth about what happened to Floyd. The only ques­tion is whether the jury of nine women and six men, includ­ing six people of color, apply­ing the evid­ence they see and hear with the legal stand­ards the judge gives them, are going to call it a crime.

Chau­vin is charged with killing George Floyd on a city street last May in an epis­ode of police brutal­ity the whole world by now has seen. The killing sparked a wave of anti-police protests across the coun­try that are splash­ing their way through police depart­ments and the city coun­cils (and the national polit­ical conver­sa­tion) 10 months later.

The debate over poli­cing in the wake of Floy­d’s death will last beyond Chau­vin’s trial and has already been shaped by what happened last May in Minneapolis. We’ve gone from a nation where few knew what a police “knee restraint” tech­nique was, for example, to a nation discuss­ing why police in Minneapolis used that deadly tech­nique 44 times from 2015 to 2020. And just as we now have a better sense of the depth of convic­tion of police reformers, we now under­stand in a way we maybe didn’t after the 2014 shoot­ing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, of how deeply entrenched, and racist, some of the oppos­i­tion to that reform is.

It is remark­able (and a sign of progress) that Chau­vin was charged with murder at all. So many other police officers are not so charged, even in similar circum­stances. And it would be even more remark­able if Chau­vin were convicted at all. Phil Stin­son, a crim­in­o­lo­gist at Bowl­ing Green State Univer­sity, told the Asso­ci­ated Press last week that fewer than 140 police officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter since 2005 despite thou­sands of fatal police shoot­ings. Only seven cops were convicted of murder during that time, Stin­son said.

It’s easy to frame the Chau­vin case as one of race or poli­cing in Amer­ica. An online head­line at the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s website over the week­end screamed: “Derek Chau­vin trial repres­ents a defin­ing moment in Amer­ica’s racial history,” which may or may not be true (ask me in 30 years). From the same article: “The trial itself is about what happened that May even­ing, but it will also be a vessel into which a splintered soci­ety places its rage, anxi­et­ies and hopes.” Paul Butler, a former federal prosec­utor, put it more bluntly. “In terms of public conscious­ness, this is all about race,” Butler said, before making it clear he believes that there is no guar­an­tee that jurors will hear much evid­ence about race at trial.

Our splintered soci­ety has reached no consensus on the future of poli­cing, either, since Floyd died. Certainly Minneapolis has not. The fight there between reformers and police hard­liners contin­ues on the eve of the Chau­vin trial and it will surely linger on well past it. Police budgets in other cities have been reduced by reform-minded public offi­cials, too. But then there’s this, from Bloomberg City Lab: “Even as the 50 largest U.S. cities reduced their 2021 police budgets by 5.2% in aggreg­ate—often as part of broader pandemic cost-cutting initi­at­ives—law enforce­ment spend­ing as a share of general expendit­ures rose slightly to 13.7% from 13.6%.”

The result of the Chau­vin trial will tell us little more than what a collec­tion of 12 Minneapolis resid­ents think of the evid­ence they’ll be allowed to see over the next few weeks. Prosec­utors show jurors that etern­ally long video, eight minutes and 46 seconds of excru­ci­at­ing police work on an Amer­ican street, and tell them that no cop who keeps his knee on the neck of a prone man begging for air should be excused from crim­inal liab­il­ity. Defense attor­neys tell those same jurors that Floyd helped do himself in, with drugs, and that Chau­vin should be given the bene­fit of two doubts, one as a crim­inal defend­ant, the other as a cop.

All it takes is one juror to embrace Chau­vin’s theory and you have either a hung jury or an acquit­tal. Or a convic­tion on third-degree murder or manslaughter, which would reduce the maximum poten­tial sentence Chau­vin could receive from 40 years for second-degree murder down to 25 or 10 years, respect­ively. There is a reason prosec­utors fought so hard before trial — taking the matter up on appeal — to give jurors these comprom­ise options. If a juror wants to hold Chau­vin account­able for killing Floyd but does not want to condemn Chau­vin to what would be a life sentence given his age, then lesser charges repres­ent a sort of moral comprom­ise.

It will be inter­est­ing to hear details from witnesses about the police train­ing Chau­vin received — the knee restraint, use-of-force stand­ards, etc. — and how hard prosec­utors try to separ­ate the respect jurors may feel for police in general with the scorn prosec­utors want them to feel for this partic­u­lar former cop in partic­u­lar. It will be fascin­at­ing to see the extent to which defense attor­neys try to blame the victim for his own death and how far the trial judge lets them travel down this road. But whether the defend­ant is convicted or not, I don’t expect history to be made inside the courtroom in Hennepin County, Minnesota, in State v. Derek Chau­vin.

I expect instead jurors to do their best in an impossible situ­ation, know­ing as they surely do that the eyes of the world are upon them. I expect the trial judge to main­tain firm control of the trial so it does not devolve into the circus we know high-profile trials can become. I expect there to be a great deal of spec­u­la­tion about whether the defend­ant himself will testify on his own behalf once the defense case begins. And I expect we’ll be grap­pling with the results of the trial for many years to come. George Floy­d’s death refueled a move­ment that tran­scends the Chau­vin case, always has and always will, and that’s the truth.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.