Derek Chauvin verdict: What next for policing and race relations in America?

With blue wall of silence broken in George Floyd trial, Biden calls for ‘real change’

People celebrate as the verdict is announced in the trial of Derek Chauvin outside the Hennepin County Government Centre in Minneapolis. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP

People celebrate as the verdict is announced in the trial of Derek Chauvin outside the Hennepin County Government Centre in Minneapolis. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP

 

The conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd has brought to a close one of the most high-profile trials in American history. But the issue of police misconduct and race relations in the country is far from resolved.

Chauvin’s trial is a watershed moment in the history of American policing – the conviction of a police officer for an on-duty killing is highly unusual in the United States. Approximately 1,000 fatal shootings involving police happen in the US each year, some of which involve suspects who are armed. But only a handful of police have ever been charged with a crime.

Those who are are rarely convicted. One reason is that police have significant legal authority to use force when in the line of duty – something that juries recognise and in many cases respect.

The Chauvin case differed from many other police misconduct cases in one obvious way – the video of the killing. The cellphone footage taken by teenager Darnella Frazier, who testified during the trial, provided a vital piece of evidence for the prosecution.

“Believe your eyes” was one of the closing arguments made by prosecutors this week. Frazier was taking her nine-year-old cousin to the Cup Foods convenience store when she witnessed what was happening to George Floyd. “[There have] been nights I stayed up apologising and apologising to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” she said during her testimony to the court.

“But it’s not what I should have done, it’s what he should have done,” she said referring to Chauvin.

While the emergence of the internet and videophones may have changed the dynamics of policing, many still feared that the evidence would not be sufficient to convict Chauvin in this case. After all, the beating of Rodney King by four white police officers in Los Angeles in 1991 was captured on video camera, but the officers were cleared.

‘Errant officer’

In addition to the video evidence, the prosecution successfully separated Chauvin’s actions from police conduct more generally. “The defendant is on trial not for being a police officer – it’s not the state versus the police,” prosecutor Steve Schleicher said. “He’s not on trial for who he was. He’s on trial for what he did.”

The argument that a conviction would actually be a pro-police move by holding to account an errant officer may have resonated. The fact that several serving and former police officers also testified against Chauvin suggested that the so-called blue wall of silence may not be as strong as it once was.

People march through Brooklyn after the guilty verdict was announced in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photograph: Gabriela Bhaskar/New York Times
People march through Brooklyn after the guilty verdict was announced in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photograph: Gabriela Bhaskar/New York Times

The country’s largest police union welcomed the outcome of the case, stating that the trial was fair, and “due process was served”. The practices at the Minneapolis police force, however, are now under federal scrutiny.

On Wednesday, attorney general Merrick Garland announced that the department of justice had launched an investigation “to determine whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing”.

This includes examining whether there is a practice of using excessive force, including during protests; whether the police department engages in discriminatory conduct; and a probe into the force’s treatment of people with behavioural health difficulties.

This is separate to the federal criminal investigation already under way by the department of justice into possible civil rights violations by Chauvin. 

The announcement came as President Joe Biden made it clear in his address to the nation following the verdict that the Chauvin trial outcome was “not enough”.

“It can’t stop here. In order to deliver real change and reform, we can and we must do more to reduce the likelihood that tragedies like this will ever happen again,” he said.

Sentencing guidelines

Meanwhile, focus will now turn to the sentencing of Chauvin. His bail was revoked following his conviction, and he was led away from court in handcuffs. He is being held in a prison in Minnesota, and is being detained away from other prisoners for his own safety, officials said.

Judge Peter Cahill said a sentencing hearing will take place in eight weeks’ time.

Though the most serious charge on which he was convicted – second-degree murder – can command up to 40 years in prison, sentencing guidelines suggest a prison term of 12.5 years is more probable for a defendant without a criminal record.

However, the state is likely to request a lengthier sentence, citing aggravating factors such as the fact that the crime took place in the presence of children, that Chauvin abused his authority as a police officer and that his actions were particularly cruel.

Attention will also turn to the trial of the other three officers who witnessed the killing. Chauvin’s three colleagues are scheduled to be tried in August on aiding and abetting charges, though their attorneys are likely to request that the trial takes place outside Minneapolis.

In the meantime, however, the black community in Minneapolis are hoping that Chauvin’s conviction could prove a turning point for relations with the police. As Philonise Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, said when the verdict was announced: “Today we are able to breathe again.”

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