Opinion: Chauvin’s guilty verdict was accountability, not justice

Far too often, police officers get away with killing Black people.

Illustration+by+Michelle+Rodriguez+Gonzalez.

Illustration by Michelle Rodriguez Gonzalez.

Michael Gennaro, Staff Writer

Like many other Americans on April 20, I was glued to my television set in the late afternoon, awaiting the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin. Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for more than nine minutes last May, suffocating him in front of a crowd of concerned bystanders.

The jury found Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Judge Peter A. Cahill of the Hennepin County Courthouse’s Fourth Judicial district will sentence Chauvin on June 16. Chauvin faces up to 75 years in prison. Until then, he’ll be held in solitary confinement at Oak Park Heights, a maximum-security prison in Minneapolis.

Chauvin’s convictions set off waves of celebration in front of the courthouse in Minneapolis.

“Justice” was a word used a lot in the wake of the verdict. I think “accountability” fits better here. Justice would be George Floyd still being alive. Justice would be zero Black people being killed at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve. 

Black people are 2.6 times more likely to be killed in a shooting by a police officer than white people. Black people account for 13% of the U.S. population, but they are getting killed at a disproportionate rate compared to white Americans. Chauvin’s conviction doesn’t change these ugly numbers. It’s merely a step in the right direction. 

From the White House, Joe Biden called the verdict “a step forward,” but also added that it took a “unique and extraordinary convergence of factors” to deliver the conviction. 

Would Chauvin have gotten away with murdering Floyd if Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old who first started filming Chauvin kneeling on Floyd, didn’t come along and catch Chauvin in the act on video? It’s a shame that Americans, especially Black Americans, have to ask themselves this question.

Officers shoot and kill around 1,000 people a year according to a Washington Post database, and police are rarely prosecuted when they do so, according to The Huffington Post.

According to a study from researchers at Bowling Green State University, between 2005 and 2019, about 140 officers were arrested on either murder or manslaughter charges. Of those 140, only 35 were convicted of a crime. Just seven of the 35 were convicted of murder, according to The Huffington Post.

When the victim is Black, the conviction rate is even lower, and the police routinely get away with slap-on-the-wrist penalties. When Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, 16 times in the back in 2014, he got only six years in prison. 

Biden called the Chauvin verdict “basic accountability.” That basic accountability for police recklessness does not happen often. The officer who killed Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold, Daniel Pantaleo, is free. Rusten Sheskey, the officer who shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times when Blake attempted to enter the driver’s side of his vehicle, will face no discipline. Darren Wilson, who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014, was not indicted. 

Since the Chauvin verdict, officers in Ohio, California, and North Carolina have shot and killed Black people. One of the victims, Ma’Khia Bryant, a teenager, shot and killed on April 20, the same day as the Chauvin verdict. 

Last week, mere miles from the courthouse where Chauvin was on trial, Kim Potter, an officer in the Brooklyn Center Police Department, shot and killed Daunte Wright, an unarmed Black male, at a traffic stop. Potter said she had mistaken her standard-issue handgun for a Taser. 

In Chicago, an officer shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who appeared to be unarmed and had his hands up when the shots were fired. These types of mistakes are unacceptable from officers who we expect to keep their composure and protect us, and are indicative of trigger-happy American police practices. Too often, American police officers go to the gun immediately.

Derek Chauvin will face years in prison for his crime, but he is merely a feature of our diseased police system. There are others like him who will recklessly kill, and they will likely not face punishment.

One reason to be hopeful is that Chauvin’s fellow officers and superiors in the Minneapolis Police Department and police experts called on to testify against Chauvin condemned his actions. It is rare for officers to break the blue wall of silence and condemn fellow officers for misconduct, but they did so in this case.

The Justice Department is opening a probe into the policing practices in Minneapolis. Attorney General Merrick Garland said that the verdict “does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis.” The investigation could lead to major reforms.

Confidence in the police is at an all-time low, according to Gallup. Like most other issues in America, the debate about police is heavily partisan. Some 82% of Republicans surveyed by Gallup trust the police, while only 28% of Democrats polled said the same. 

The three other officers involved in killing Floyd, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Keung, and Thomas Lane, will face trial in August. Hopefully, they too, will be held accountable for their actions during Floyd’s deadly arrest. And hopefully, this will be the beginning of real change to policing in America.

There will only be justice when every officer that acts as Chauvin did is punished for their crimes. America still has a long way to go to accomplish that basic accountability.

Michael Gennaro is a staff writer for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or follow him on Instagram or Twitter @mycoolgennaro.