Police Accountability and Reasoned Discourse

Late yesterday, a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder in the death of George Floyd.

By now, we probably have all seen the video footage of Chauvin pinning Floyd to the ground by putting his knee on his neck. For anyone who has, it was hard not to conclude that then police officer Chauvin used excessive force and murdered George Floyd.

Yesterday, the system worked and held that police officer accountable for his actions. Though it should have been pretty clear to any objective observer what happened, every person has a right to a trial and to make their case. Chauvin did that and the justice system held him to account.

In these times, it is hard to have a reasoned discussion on things with such passion behind them, passion for good reason in many cases.

George Floyd was resisting arrest. Your chances of not being the subject of police violence increase immeasurably when you do not resist arrest and follow lawful instructions. Yet that does not mean that Floyd should have lost his life. Floyd was stopped for potentially passing counterfeit money. not even for a violent crime. Even if we assume he was guilty, why would someone lose their life for passing bad money that was not even enough to qualify as a felony? Chauvin clearly used excessive force and, while the reasons for that may never been known, it may be part of a culture that contributes to overreaction and lack of accountability. Without getting off topic, several subsequent incidents indicate that there is probably a fundamental cultural issue within the Minneapolis Police Dept. and the statement by the Department immediately after Floyd’s death is one indication, when the Department said that a man died “of a medical condition” while in police custody. Whether that statement was issued hurriedly based on reports from Chauvin or was something more sinister, we don’t know. We can be thankful that the system worked, and Chauvin has been tried and will be held accountable for his actions.

It is those law enforcement departments that do things such as downplay or even cover up crimes of their own, rather than holding their own to a higher standard that cause suspicion and mistrust of law enforcement among minorities and other groups. Holding Chauvin accountable is not the solution but a first step in what should be routine practice.

Yet, we have also gotten to the point where everything is defined by race, and when that happens things will never get better. We say we want everyone treated equally but then, in practice, we do nothing but see everything in terms of “us” and “them”.  A recent example is from nearby Brooklyn Center, MN.

Police stopped Daunte Wright.  The officers involved were white. Wright, who is black, resisted arrest and police began wrestling with him. Body camera footage shows the struggle and police officer Kim Potts warning him that he would get tasered if he did not stop fighting. When he did not stop, she pulled her weapon and fired. The weapon was not a taser but her gun, and Wright died from a gunshot to the chest. It appears that the officer reached for a weapon in the heat of the moment, without looking as she was still struggling with the suspect, and grabbed her gun instead of her taser. How does that happen? We don’t know but it never should have.

The next morning, Potts, a 26 year old police veteran resigned, implicitly admitting the terrible mistake she had made. The day after that, she was charged with a crime in the killing of Daunte Wright. That is exactly what should have happened.

Yet the simple fact that the officer involved was white and the victim was black has led to a portrayal that the incident was a race issue, and of another indication that all law enforcement are racist at an institutional level. Large protests went on for seven days—a week straight. Despite the fact that there is no indication, from the footage or from past behavior, that officer Potts was acting out of racist hatred. There is evidence, however, that she made a terrible mistake that ended in the death of another human. It may have been a mistake, but police officers are given special authority in our society and with that comes a special and higher responsibility and they simply can’t make mistakes that end in a death. And Potts implicitly recognizes that by her immediate resignation and she is being charged and held accountable, and that is all the way it should be.

There are problems that need to be addressed. When crimes are committed, even if by police, they need to prosecuted and law enforcement needs to be at the forefront of holding themselves to a higher standard. Until that happens, there will not be trust. Also, people who commit crimes and resist arrest should be condemned and there should be a realization that force has to be used in those cases, and that the race of the individuals involved is not always the problem. Until that happens, there will not be trust.

There is a lot of work that will have to happen and a lot of hate that has to go away.

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