On Friday, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison for the murder of George Floyd. But let’s not kid ourselves. No matter how many years Chauvin ends up spending in prison, it will do nothing to stem the tide of police violence in communities of color across the United States.
No matter how many years Chauvin ends up spending in prison, it will do nothing to stem the tide of police violence in communities of color across the United States.
To be sure, some measure of significant individual accountability for Chauvin is required here. His fateful decision to plunge his knee into Floyd’s neck and leave it there for an excruciating 9 minutes and 29 seconds, while Floyd pleaded for his life, cannot be met with indifference.
Certainly, for many of us, it was heartening to witness the criminal legal system finally hold a white police officer accountable in a court of law for taking the life of a Black man. This was no small feat. Given the failure of so many other jurisdictions to hold officers accountable for abhorrent conduct, the collective sigh of relief within the Black community was almost palpable.
As such, and particularly in light of the historic public outcry, widespread uprisings and national reckoning (of sorts) around race and racial justice following Floyd’s tragic death, any sentence that didn’t include significant prison time would likely have been met with understandable outrage.
But as my colleagues Vincent Southerland and Steven Demarest pointed out in a THINK essay in the immediate aftermath of Chauvin’s conviction, the unique circumstances surrounding this case (namely the fact that the entire sordid episode was caught on camera, in broad daylight, without obstruction or interruption) made a successful prosecution much more likely than many of the other police shootings that have received national attention in recent years, most of which have resulted in either an acquittal or a decision not to indict the officer at all.
Indeed, it is pure folly to believe that we can rely on the mechanisms of the criminal legal system to eradicate police violence. The irrationality of this country’s addiction to incarceration as the go-to solution does not suddenly become rational just because the defendant in this case happens to be a police officer. A lengthy sentence may provide some measure of closure for Floyd's family and the community, which is important, but it almost certainly won’t lessen the number of police killings that will likely occur as we head into the summer months.
One need look no further than the prosecutors in the Chauvin case to see that his experience with the criminal legal system won’t change the behavior of the police as a whole. The government attorneys who made the case against Chauvin went out of their way to make clear that this case was about an instance of grave misconduct by one bad apple and decidedly not about policing in Minneapolis more generally, let alone the culture of policing nationwide.
After all, in a rare twist, even other Minneapolis police officials, including Chief Medaria Arradondo, identified Chauvin’s actions as being beyond the pale and not a reflection of the training and guidance they receive from the department.
Then, in his closing argument, lead prosecutor Steve Schleicher reminded the jury how much “we” trust the police, and noted how difficult it must be for them “to imagine a police officer doing something like this.” Incredibly, he added, “We believe the police are going to respond to our call for help. We believe they’re going to listen to us.”
And just in case there was any doubt about the larger implications of this case (or lack thereof) from the state’s perspective, Schleicher added: “Make no mistake, this is not a prosecution of the police, it is a prosecution of the defendant, and there’s nothing worse for good police than a bad police [officer] who doesn’t follow the rules, who doesn’t follow procedure, who doesn’t follow training, who ignores the policies of the department, the motto of the department to protect with courage, to serve with compassion.”
And therein lies the problem. Putting aside the glaring disconnect between Schleicher’s apparent experience of the police and that of millions of Black and brown people in Minneapolis and around the country, his suggestion that Chauvin’s actions were antithetical to the ethos of American policing is, in a word, laughable.
It’s also dangerous. The prosecution’s approach to Chauvin’s case should be a stark reminder that we cannot rely on the criminal legal system and the incarceration (or threat of incarceration) of individual police officers to stop police violence in Black and brown communities.
This is the same criminal legal system that has devastated people and communities of color for centuries. Indeed, the prison system to which Chauvin is headed is the same system that continues to incarcerate Black and Latinx people at grossly disproportionate rates; it is the same system that continues to strip people of their dignity and humanity; and it’s the same system that has wreaked havoc on families and communities throughout this country.
If we’re not careful, by looking to the criminal legal system for redress, we will further legitimize and entrench the very system that terrorizes communities of color on a daily basis. Perhaps more importantly, if we settle for the hefty prison sentence for Chauvin and credit that as a success, or if we waste our breaths arguing about the inadequacy of the penalty meted out, we will never meaningfully address the true source of the problem — namely, deeply rooted institutional racism and the legacy of slavery in this country.
One need look no further than the prosecutors in the Chauvin case to see that his experience with the criminal legal system won’t change the behavior of the police as a whole.
As Black people know all too well, the scourge of racism continues to infect all aspects of our society — from education to employment to housing to health care. In fact, it is often the confluence of deficiencies and disadvantages in all of these areas that ultimately funnels Black and brown people into the criminal legal system in the first place.
If we allow state prosecutors to pretend that the murder of George Floyd occurred in a vacuum and to convince us that getting Derek Chauvin off the streets is the answer, we will have missed another opportunity to truly address the problem.
And if we do not acknowledge that fundamental truth and avoid engaging in the hard work of naming and dismantling institutional racism, we are bound to fail in our quest for justice. So, let us not get distracted by the fate of Chauvin. Instead, we have to muster the courage to confront this country’s original sin. It is my sincere hope and prayer that, one day, Americans will be up for that challenge.