By the time the jury came back with three guilty verdicts for Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, I’d already tempered my expectations down to just about the lowest levels possible. Right up until the end, I honestly didn’t know what the result would be, though the rapid work of the jury certainly suggested he’d be found guilty of something, and there was definitely an argument in favor of such a result. But as I saw it, there really weren’t going to be any “winners” coming out of this. If the jury had acquitted Chauvin of all charges or even the most serious ones, Minneapolis (and likely many other cities) would have gone up in flames to the point where the fire crews would still be trying to extinguish them tonight. That didn’t happen, so you’ve at least got that much to be thankful for.
As I watched the media coverage of the trial over the past week or so, however, along with the red-hot statements being tossed out by elected officials and activists, it became increasingly clear that a full set of guilty verdicts wasn’t going to solve anything either. In fact, it could arguably make things even worse. Sure enough, in the aftermath of the guilty verdicts, the victory laps being taken by mainstream media talking heads, newspaper editorial board members, and activists on social media made it clear that this trial had never really been about George Floyd, or at least not close to being entirely about him. People were losing their minds. At one point the Speaker of the House actually came out and thanked George Floyd for “sacrificing his life for justice.”
Those reactions confirmed what I’d been expecting all along. The entire purpose of this exercise in criminal justice had been hijacked. It wasn’t a time for celebration. George Floyd is still dead and the person convicted of taking his life is behind bars waiting for the appeals process to begin. But for a large portion of our society, it wasn’t Derek Chauvin that was on trial. The entire system of law enforcement and every police officer in the country had been taken to court. And in the eyes of all of these celebrants, that system had been defeated.
Every criminal trial that takes place follows the same pattern, or at least they should in theory. A person is accused of a crime. Their victims (and the victims’ friends and family) are hoping for justice in the form of the perpetrator being convicted and given an appropriate sentence as punishment for their crimes. The accused is assured legal representation and a chance to plead their case before a jury of their peers. In the end, we agree as a constitutional society to accept the results. But a bad thing has still happened creating the need for the trial and that bell can’t be unrung.
The response to this trial, however, was something entirely different and we’re already seeing repercussions. We have people acting as if the fact that Derek Chauvin was found guilty was, first, some sort of confirmation that all police officers are violent racists, or at least need to be viewed with suspicion. And second, the fact that a cop was “finally” found guilty meant that the dam had broken and now those dastardly cops would be falling like dominos. In reality, many police officers who have gone bad wind up in jail, with Michael Slager being one of the more famous examples. But now everything was about to change, right?
Both that unrealistic expectation and the fraudulent assumptions underlying it were put to the test almost immediately. The ink was barely dry on the jury’s decision before a police officer in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed a Black female teenager who had reportedly been attacking some other girls with a knife. Can you believe this is happening just after we finally got justice for George Floyd? That was the tone of many of the responses I saw cropping up immediately on social media. One blue-check even described the now-deceased suspect as “an unarmed teenage Black girl.”
A closer examination of the body camera video revealed that such descriptions were completely off the mark. She had been shot while lunging to stab another female with a large knife after having been commanded to drop the weapon. It’s the sort of situation that no police officer wants to find themselves in, but it’s also a textbook case of when lethal force is a cop’s course of last resort and a decision has to be made in a split second to prevent further death or grievous injury to additional victims.
None of that seemed to matter yesterday among too many analysts and influencers. The cop was (presumably) white and the dead girl was Black so the cop was guilty. And it’s an outrage that such a thing should happen so close on the heels of the verdict being delivered in Derek Chauvin’s trial. So it’s time to round up the usual aggrieved masses and begin demanding the cop’s head on a platter or you’d best appropriate some overtime pay for the fire department.
While this may be difficult for some people to hear, nothing really changed yesterday because nothing really needed to change, at least in the overarching sense of the movement pushing various definitions of police reform. The only cop on trial was Derek Chauvin and a jury found him guilty. If his appeals fail he will be held responsible and punished for his actions. There will be bad shootings by police officers in the future because of the nature of their job. Some will be intentional, evil acts such as we saw with Michael Slager. Others will be tragic accidents as was seen when Tamir Rice was killed by police officers in Cleveland in 2015. Different forms of training and better advancements in non-lethal intervention technology may (hopefully) minimize such incidents and we should embrace those efforts. But the nature of policing and the realities involved in dealing with dangerous individuals on the streets can never eliminate it entirely. That’s something that’s not going to change even if Derek Chauvin spends the rest of his life behind bars.