The conviction of a former Minneapolis police officer in the murder of George Floyd is cause for faith in the American justice system. But it is not a reason for that faith to be abiding; it is only a single step in a long journey.
On Tuesday, Derek Chauvin was convicted on two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter. Last year, he knelt on Floyd’s neck and back for 9 minutes, 29 seconds, causing the 46-year-old Black man’s death. Video captured by a bystander detailed Floyd crying out for help — and the officer’s defiant glare at helpless witnesses.
While justice for Floyd was served by the jury’s decision, the decision also calls to mind countless deaths by people of color at the hands — or guns — of police officers. If not for the video, the death would have been explained away, as have so many others. Instead, it triggered protests and calls for racial justice throughout the country, with the horrific reality of the video impossible to ignore.
In the end, the conviction is a necessary but difficult victory for policing. Officers who violate their sworn duty are a pox upon the entire occupation, besmirching police who truly desire to serve and protect. Such violators are not a handful of bad apples, as apologists like to pretend. Departments, governments and citizens must be diligent in identifying and removing officers who view their badge as a license to brutalize a segment of the public.
So, too, must fellow officers. That is the goal behind a bill that passed the Washington Legislature last week. Senate Bill 5066, which now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee, will require an officer to intervene when witnessing a fellow officer engaging in excessive force, and will require law enforcement agencies to have written policies about the new law. All Southwest Washington Democrats supported the bill, along with Republican Rep. Paul Harris and Sen. Ann Rivers.
In the Floyd case, three fellow officers stood by while Chauvin committed murder. Those officers have been fired and have been charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
Importantly, the Chauvin trial saw a crumbling of “the blue wall” with which officers often protect each other. The Minneapolis police chief testified that Chauvin violated policy in pinning Floyd’s neck under his knee.
Senate Bill 5066 will compel officers of good conscience in this state to stand up for basic human dignity rather than defend the indefensible. It is one of several bills expected to pass the Legislature about rethinking policing in Washington. In the process, the state is working to protect noble officers as well as the public.
House Bill 1267, which has been sent to the governor, will modify when lethal force is justifiable and create an Office of Independent Investigation to examine instances when force is used. It was supported by Southwest Washington Democrats and opposed by local Republicans.
House Bill 1054, which has support in both chambers, prohibits choke holds, prevents police from obtaining certain military equipment, outlines parameters for car chases and search warrants, and provides restrictions on no-knock warrants and the utilization of tear gas. Support is along party lines, with Democrats in favor.
Floyd’s very public death last year has led to an overdue reckoning of police tactics and a much-needed examination of racial bias among law enforcement.
The conviction of Chauvin is a signal that officers can and will be held accountable when they violate their duty. But it is far from the end of the journey toward equitable policing.