Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin may well be convicted of one or more of the charges against him in the slaying of George Floyd. At best it will be a pyrrhic victory. Floyd is dead. His children are fatherless. Chauvin made bail months ago and was allowed to travel and live in another state. There was much haggling over whether one of the heavier charges should have been slapped on him. Not one GOP House member backed the George Floyd Police Reform Act.
To get passage, President Biden and the Democrats ran like crazy from any hint that defunding the police would be part of the bill. This was a prime cry of the massive police reform protests in the wake of the Floyd killing. Months after the Floyd killing, a recent poll shows that fewer persons now then in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s killing see Chauvin’s action as murder.
At worst, the Chauvin saga leaves unanswered the perennially tormenting question just why is it still near impossible to fire, let alone arrest, prosecute, and convict cops like Chauvin who wantonly overuse deadly force? Chauvin almost certainly would not have been one of the rare cops hauled before a court docket if tens of millions hadn’t been shocked at the video and heard the audio that showed in graphic, brutal, and drawn-out detail Floyd in his death agonies on the ground with Chauvin’s knee on his neck. Even then if Minneapolis and other cites hadn’t been rocked by furious and even violent protests, Chauvin still may have walked.
Though Chauvin was fired, there was much foot dragging by county prosecutors on what if any charges they’d bring against him. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison saw the fast-developing PR and political nightmare of an unprosecuted Chauvin, and quickly stepped into charge him.
Now there’s the trial. Chauvin like other of the relative handful of cops charged with excessive force has top gun defense lawyers with lots of experience defending police officers accused of misconduct. Police unions bankroll their defense and spare no expense. While the Minneapolis police union publicly declared it didn’t spring Chauvin on bail or provide for his defense, enough sums were raised to ensure him a first-rate defense.
Chauvin’s defense team has some formidable weapons at hand. They’ll muddy things by showing that Floyd had drugs in his system and that this was the real cause of his death. They’ll pair that line of attack with the claim that Floyd was combative and that the force Chauvin used was necessary for restraint.
There’s more. The three murder and manslaughter charges were piled on him as a hedge to convict him of something. To beat them, the defense will show there was no intent to harm, no malice of forethought, no felony use of force, and that Chauvin did not have “a depraved mind, without regard for human life.” This is all subjective. Therefore, it’s open to much legal interpretation, and thus wide open to muddying the evidence.
Typically, when cops such as Chauvin are tried by a jury, police defense attorneys seek to get as many middle-class people, whites and even Blacks and Latinos, on the jury as possible. The presumption is that they are much more likely to believe the testimony of police and police defense witnesses than Black witnesses, defendants, or even the victims. It’s a presumption that has been borne out in police misconduct trials time and again.
It’s an uphill battle for prosecutors to overcome both pro-police attitudes and negative racial stereotypes. In past studies, Stanford University researchers found that even when many whites are presented with evidence that the criminal justice system is loaded with racial bias toward Blacks, they are more likely to support tough, draconian laws such as three strikes, tough sentencing, and increased incarceration.
The negative perceptions of Blacks, especially Black males, by much of the public are not the only problem in effecting effective legal measures against police violence. There is no ironclad standard of what is or isn’t an acceptable use of force in police misconduct cases. It often comes down to a judgment call by the officer. In the Rodney King beating case in 1992 in which four LAPD officers stood trial, defense attorneys painted King as the aggressor and claimed that the level of force used against him was justified. This pattern has been evident in a number of celebrated cases since then. Police claim that they feared for their lives in confronting civilians, and they use deadly force solely in self-defense.
If Chauvin is indeed convicted of a charge in Floyd’s death, it will be an anomaly. It still won’t wipe out the top-heavy benefits that he and other cops who blatantly use deadly force continue to receive within and without the law.
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.