George Floyd: We Must Address False Concept of Police Exceptionalism that Created Derek Chauvin

Mr. Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds until Mr. Floyd died
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Photo: YouTube\Twitter

Tuesday’s verdict — convicting former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on all three charges against him for the murder of George Floyd — should not have come as a surprise, especially in light of the video of Mr. Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds until Mr. Floyd died and the damning testimony offered by the leadership of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Yet, this outcome was hardly a forgone conclusion.

As the work of the Innocence Project demonstrates, our criminal legal system too often convicts, incarcerates, and executes the innocent while simultaneously sanctioning police brutality and misconduct and turning a blind eye to long-standing and well-documented racial bias, arbitrariness, and disproportionality.

The uncertainty surrounding this verdict therefore stands as a powerful reminder of the work that remains to be done to ensure the fair and equal application of the rule of law and to foster a trustworthy criminal legal system.

Regardless of the verdict, George Floyd should be alive today. And the failures of our system that led to his horrifying death must be closely examined and corrected to restore trust and achieve fairness and equality.

So how do we bend the moral arc of history closer toward justice?

Acknowledging and confronting the racism deeply embedded in our laws, policies, and practices is a critical first step. The Innocence Project has been involved in more than 200 exonerations and in 63% of these cases, innocent Black people were denied the presumption of innocence, due process, and a fair trial — the aspirational hallmarks of American justice.

Addressing the culture of police exceptionalism that offers law enforcement special protections and privileges not afforded to ordinary people is equally critical because, too often, police misconduct played a role in those wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice.

A Failure of Transparency and Accountability

By the time George Floyd lost his life under the weight of then Officer Chauvin’s knee, at least 17 complaints against Mr. Chauvin had been filed with the Minneapolis police. These included several complaints about use of force for which he was never held accountable. Only two complaints were “closed with discipline” — amounting to a letter of reprimand — according to a public summary shared by the Minneapolis Police Department internal affairs in May 2020.

Mr. Chauvin was not the only officer on the scene that day with a history of misconduct complaints. Six complaints against former officer Tou Thao had been filed with the Minneapolis Police Department’s internal affairs — five of which were closed without discipline and one that was still open on the day Mr. Floyd was killed, according to the same internal affairs summary.

Too often we learn of officers’ extensive disciplinary records when injustice has already occurred, such as after a wrongful conviction has been exposed or, as in this case, a life has been lost.

And such discoveries occur with disturbing frequency. In fact, police misconduct — the use of coercive or abusive tactics, witness tampering, misconduct in interrogation, fabricating evidence, concealing exculpatory evidence, or perjury at trial — is a leading cause of wrongful conviction, contributing to about 37% of wrongful conviction cases.

So how do we bend the moral arc of history closer toward justice?

In Minnesota, things could have been different. The state is one of only 13 that allows public access to both sustained and unsustained complaints made against law enforcement. In theory, that should increase police transparency and accountability. However under the contract the city of Minneapolis has with its police force, any complaint that does not result in punishment must be removed from an officer’s official disciplinary record.

Such provisions in police union contracts undermine transparency and accountability measures, and, when taken together with interconnected policies and statutes that offer officers who engage in misconduct more protections than innocent people, can contribute to wrongful convictions. In this case, they resulted in the tragic and utterly preventable death of Mr. Floyd.

The Presumption of Innocence

In Minnesota, the same union contract that limits transparency provisions, further insulates officers like Mr. Chauvin by affording them exceptional privileges. For example, even when an officer is fired for misconduct, the union contract allows an appeals process that is lenient, officer-friendly, and too frequently leads to reinstatement. In Minneapolis, as in many cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., the police union agreement requires police disciplinary records to be expunged after a certain period.

Minneapolis’ police agreement also mandates that any officer accused of violent conduct be granted a 48-hour waiting period before being interviewed, a courtesy not afforded to civilians suspected of crimes.

And, by contrast, too many victims of police violence, like George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, and countless other Black and Latinx men, women, and children have been denied the presumption of innocence, due process, and a fair trial.

A Way Forward

The conviction of Derek Chauvin is no substitute for the deep and deliberate changes we need to prevent further police killings and misconduct.

We need structural changes in policing. Reining in police protections, greater transparency around police disciplinary records, the abolition of qualified immunity, and the elimination of police contracts that create different levels of presumption of innocence for police and the public are just a start.

Race must no longer serve as a proxy for criminality. We must demand more at every level of the criminal legal system.

Had Mr. Chauvin been held fully and appropriately responsible for his prior police misconduct, had we really made strides to address deep rooted racism in the system, George Floyd might still be alive today.

By Christina Swarns\Innocence Project

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