Derek Chauvin's Conviction: Why This Moment is Rare

Published on: Apr 20, 2021fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
 A mural of George Floyd is shown in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Getty Images

The jury in Derek Chauvin’s trial has found him guilty of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. Last year, Chauvin was charged with killing Floyd after kneeling on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. Viral video of the incident showed the then-officer with his knee on the 46-year-old Black man's neck as Floyd cried out "I can't breathe" 27 times. In the aftermath of his death, Floyd's name and last words became a rallying cry at protests around the country and world, sparking conversations about systemic racism in the US.

On April 20, Chauvin was convicted of second-degree and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter. In Minnesota, second-degree murder – the most serious charge he faced – carries a max penalty of 40 years in prison.

This case has been dubbed one of the most important in US history. In part, because these types of convictions against cops are rare.

If you’re wondering why charges don’t always lead to convictions…

Law enforcement officers kill around 1,000 people a year in the US. But one study found only 121 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter for on-duty killings since 2005. And only 44 were actually convicted. That number is low for many reasons, but a major one is police unions.

When an officer faces an offense – whether it be complaints from citizens or criminal charges – the union can provide legal representation. (PS: the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association funded Chauvin’s defense.) And they can also set the terms of internal investigations within the department. Experts say that can include how long police leadership must wait before they begin an investigation, how an officer can be questioned, and how long the department can investigate.

These terms have often left police chiefs with little power to fire or discipline an officer, even in cases of brutality and racism. Officers involved in killing someone may claim they feared for their life – a situation that is hard to prosecute, especially after a 1989 Supreme Court ruling said that an officer’s actions have to be judged from the perspective of an officer in that situation. And the data shows all of this has disproportionately affected Black Americans – who make up 13% of the US population, but one analysis found one-third of victims of police-involved deaths were Black.

Some are drawing parallels between Floyd’s killing and the arrest and beating of Rodney King. In March 1991 in Los Angeles, after King led police on a high-speed car chase, four officers kicked him and beat him dozens of times with batons, leaving King with skull fractures and permanent brain damage. A bystander filmed the incident, and it soon aired on people’s TVs across the country. The cops were charged with excessive use of force, but a mostly-white jury acquitted them in 1992 – sparking deadly riots that lasted days. Like Floyd’s death, King’s became a flashpoint in the fight for racial justice.

Some of the other setbacks...

Qualified immunity. It's a 1982 legal doctrine that protects police officers and gov officials from being sued if they were accused of misconduct. So while victims of police violence or their families may be able to sue police officers, a police department, or a city in a civil case, it doesn’t always lead to punishment for the defendant(s) because of qualified immunity. 

In March, the House passed a police reform bill that includes an adjustment to qualified immunity to make it easier to sue officers in civil cases. But the Senate hasn’t voted on the bill yet. 

Lack of police reform. There’s been a push for lawmakers to enact and law enforcement to enforce a number of police reforms that would not just help hold officers accountable, but also help end systemic racism in the US’s policing system. You can reach out to your elected officials to demand they take action on police reform.

With Chauvin’s case, the Justice Department under former President Trump announced a federal civil rights investigation into Floyd’s death. And earlier this year, the Associated Press and the New York Times reported that witnesses appeared before a grand jury – a jury that could decide to charge Chauvin with violating Floyd’s civil rights. Meaning: he could also face federal charges.

Here’s where things stand with other victims' cases…

Over the past year or so, many Black Americans have been killed or harmed by police violence. Here’s where things stand with their cases:

  • Breonna Taylor: The 26-year-old Black EMT from Kentucky who was shot six times and killed in March 2020 following a botched police raid at her apartment. None of the three officers involved were charged directly for her death, although one faces charges for endangering her neighbors. A federal investigation is still underway.

  • Daniel Prude: The 41-year-old whose family said was left brain dead after officers in Rochester, New York, restrained him, covered his head with a "spit hood," and pinned him to the ground last March. Prude's family had also said he was suffering a mental health crisis when they called officers for help. He died a week later. A grand jury declined to charge the officers involved.

  • Rayshard Brooks: The 27-year-old who was shot and killed at a Wendy's parking lot after police responded to a call about a man allegedly sleeping in his car in June. The officers are facing charges including felony murder and aggravated assault.

  • Jacob Blake: The 29-year-old Black man who was shot in the back seven times by police in front of his kids in Kenosha, Wisconsin during a domestic dispute in August. He was left paralyzed from the waist down. The officer who shot him has not been charged, and has returned to work after an administrative leave.

  • Jonathan Price: The 31-year-old employee of the Wolfe City, Texas public works department who was shot and killed by police at a convenience store in October. His family says he was trying to break up a domestic dispute before he was shot. The cop has been charged with murder.

  • Walter Wallace Jr: The 27-year-old who was shot and killed in Philadelphia in October, after police responded to a call about a man armed with a knife. His mother said he struggled with mental health issues and was on medication. The officers are reportedly on desk duty pending an investigation

  • Andre Hill: The 47-year-old who was shot and killed in Columbus, Ohio in December. Hill was holding a cellphone when he was killed. The officer, who's been fired, had not turned on his body camera and did not administer aid for several minutes. He was charged with murder, and was released from jail after posting bail.

  • Daunte Wright: The 20-year-old Black man who was killed during a traffic stop in Minnesota in April. The former police officer who shot him alleges she meant to fire a Taser at him rather than a gun. She’s been charged with second-degree manslaughter.

theSkimm

Derek Chauvin's conviction is a landmark moment in the fight against police brutality and racial injustice. And it’s giving people hope that officers can be held accountable for their violent actions against Black Americans.

Skimm'd by Maria del Carmen Corpus, Maria Martinolich, Mariza Smajlaj, Kamini Ramdeen, Clem Robineau, and Julie Shain


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