Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The instant the video flashed globally of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin choking George Floyd to death the president of the national Fraternal Order of Police, Patrick Yoes, issued an indignant statement condemning Chauvin’s act. Yoes loudly insisted that Chauvin’s action in no way represents what good cops routinely do day in day out. Yoes expressed deep concern that Chauvin’s brutal act would further diminish how the public viewed police officer’s conduct. Yoes was praised for his forthright condemnation of Chauvin.
But a year earlier in April 2019 Yoes sung a far different tune in an interview with NPR. The issue this time was the firing by the New York’s police commissioner of officer Daniel Pantaleo. Pantaleo was the officer caught on a video choking Eric Garner on the ground on a New York sidewalk. There was a choke, a shout from Garner “I can’t breathe”, officers piling on Garner, a crowd and a video that captured the death agony of Garner. This was an eerie, almost identical repeat of what happened to Floyd years later. Yet, Yoes this time was in full combative mode. He bristled at the firing of Pantaleo and repeatedly claimed that his action did not violate any standard of conduct especially when it came to the use of deadly force. The union vehemently opposed any attempt to prosecute Pantaleo for wanton use of deadly force.
Yoe’s defense of Pantaleo in a case that was a virtual precursor to Chauvin’s choke of Floyd was not simply a case of selective memory or a union top cat defending one of his own. It tells much why Chauvin was caught with his knee on Floyd’s neck on that fateful day and why many other officers such as Chauvin who have repeatedly been caught overusing deadly force are vigorously defended when they do.
Let’s go back nearly three decades on cops such as Chauvin and their defenders. In 1991, the Christopher Commission was charged with investigating the causes of the riots that rocked the nation after the acquittal of the four LAPD cops that beat Black motorist Rodney King. In a blistering report it identified hundreds of officers who had been the targets of citizen complaints of excessive force, in nearly all cases against Blacks and Latinos.
Some of the officers had six complaints or more against them for using improper tactics in dealing with suspects. It tactfully labeled them “potential problem officers.” The officers were accused of beating suspects, kicking them and, in some cases, shooting them. Not one of the officers was fired. Not one of the officers received anything more than hand slap disciplinary punishment. And, most importantly, not one of them was prosecuted for their multiple acts of terror under the color of law. A follow-up report two years later found that nearly all of these “problem officers” were still on the job.
Now nearly thirty years later we come to Chauvin, and a near rerun of how bad cops stay in uniform with the tacit complicity of higher ups. Chauvin had nearly 20 complaints of abuse, beatings, shootings, and reckless car chases. The complaints spanned a decade on the Minneapolis police force. Successive Minneapolis mayors, police chiefs, members of the police commission, and Hennepin County prosecutors, including for a time U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, read the file on Chauvin, scrutinized the reports, examined the complaints, and investigated his trail of violence. Yet, they did nothing. Their inaction was a tacit, if not open, stamp of approval of his violent acts.
The officers who worked with Chauvin almost certainly were not blind to his actions. In that fateful moment Floyd lay helplessly on the ground fighting for his life with Chauvin’s knee slowing choking the life out of him, other officers either stood around doing nothing to assist Floyd, or worse, piled on Floyd to subdue a man that was already laying helplessly on the ground near death. Four Minneapolis officers will be prosecuted as accessories, but the FOP did not utter a word of condemnation of their inaction.
In the months since the Floyd killing, stacks of police reform measures have been introduced in state legislatures including the Minnesota legislature. The measures deal in one way or another with the use of force and punishment of officers who overuse deadly force. The measures have been killed outright or gutted of their toughest prohibitions on punishment. In every case, police unions such as the FOP have massaged, cajoled, and hectored state legislators to kill or water down the measures.
When a Chauvin obliterates the line on the use of force and then remains on the force to continue to obliterate that line, the inevitable happens. In his case, it was the hideous murder of a Floyd. Then the wrath of the nation slams down on Chauvin and Chauvin alone. Police and city officials and prosecutors quickly scramble and issue pious, self-serving statements about their shock, the horror of it. They promise swift action. Nothing is said, though, about their role in creating the hideous pieces that made a Chauvin.
Chauvin will face that wrath alone. But the truth is that he had many willing accomplices who deserve that wrath too.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is Why Black Lives Do Matter. (Middle Passage Press) He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network. His political affairs commentaries can be found weekly on thehutchinsonreport.net.