- Derek Chauvin’s conviction for murdering George Floyd was a rare case of accountability for a police killing.
- Police kill around 1,000 people every year, but most cases do not result in criminal charges.
- Experts say that lasting change in police accountability is unlikely to come from the courtroom.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
It remains extraordinarily unlikely for police officers to be criminally charged for killing members of the public, and even more so for them to be convicted of murder by a jury.
Nearly a year after a viral video showed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds on a street in Minneapolis, a jury on Tuesday found Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, second-degree manslaughter, and third-degree murder.
Chauvin’s conviction marks the first time a white Minnesota police officer has been convicted for killing a Black person in the state.
“I think the natural favoritism and the bias in favor of police is always going to be the biggest obstacle,” Kate Levine, an associate professor at Cardozo School of Law and an expert in police prosecutions, told Insider.
Each year, police kill around 1,000 people. But, since 2005, just 139 law enforcement officers involved in an on-duty shooting have been arrested for murder or manslaughter, and just 44 have been convicted of a crime related to the shooting, according to database created by Philip Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University. Just one of these cases was in Minnesota, the state where Chauvin stood trial.
But as Attorney General Keith Ellison said last June, “history shows that trying and winning a case like this one is hard.” Indeed, prosecuting a member of law enforcement is different from pursuing a case against an average person.
Police officers have the unique authority to use “reasonable” force when making an arrest or protecting themselves or others from harm. The determination of whether that force was reasonable, or rises to the level of criminal, is subjective.
Meanwhile, juries are more likely to believe a police officer’s version of events and how much force was warranted. According to an analysis by the Washington Post, fellow officers, who are seen as “highly credible eyewitnesses as well as experts in the proper use of force,” are unlikely to cross the so-called Blue Wall of Silence and testify against an officer who has been charged. One way that Chauvin’s case was exceptional was that his police chief, Medaria Arradondo, testified at trial that the killing of Floyd was not justified.
And finally, police who are charged with crimes are more likely to take their case to trial, rather than reach a plea deal with prosecutors, and they generally have access to experienced, high-priced lawyers, experts said. (In Chauvin’s case, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association covered the cost for his defense.)
In the case of Chauvin, who was fired from the Minneapolis Police Department the day after Floyd’s death, the video evidence was unusually strong. The widely-viewed clips, shot from multiple angles, showed Floyd handcuffed on the ground by multiple officers and pleading that he couldn’t breathe.
Still, there have been other cases with strong video evidence involving police that never led to convictions, or even criminal charges.
New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo was caught on video using a chokehold on Eric Garner as he said “I can’t breathe,” but was never charged for Garner’s death. Video showed police officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shooting Philando Castile during a 2016 traffic stop in a Minnesota suburb. At trial, Yanez was acquitted of all charges.
George Floyd’s murder helped helped launch the “Defund the Police” movement and sparked a racial reckoning across America. But it is not yet clear if the successful prosecution of Chauvin will have a lasting change on how police officers who kill civilians are treated.
Charges in three of the five cases since 2005 in which law enforcement officers were charged with homicide for choking-related deaths were filed after Floyd’s death, Stinson’s data shows.
Cases of civilians being killed by police mounted even while Chauvin stood trial. According to an analysis by the New York Times, there were three such killings a day since March 29, when testimony against Chauvin began.
These included the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago on March 29. On April 11, not far from the courthouse where Chauvin was tried, an officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, fatally shot Daunte Wright, 20, during a traffic stop. And just 20 minutes before Chauvin’s verdict was read out, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, fatally shot 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant.
It is not yet clear if any of those shootings will result in criminal charges.
Levine said she thinks the prosecution of police officers is not a fix for creating lasting change within police departments and stopping brutality.
“It’s a systemic problem that i don’t believe will be solved by the individual bad apple solutions,” she said. Instead, she recommended reducing police contact with citizens and defunding police departments.
“If we continue to ask police to continuously intervene in everyone’s lives and we continue to let them believe everyone is out to get them and continue to carry firearms, I think we will continue to see instances of police brutality.”