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Why A Guilty Verdict For Derek Chauvin Doesn’t Change The Reality Of Police Violence

The murder trial for Derek Chauvin was notable in many ways. Not only was it significant to George Floyd’s family, who was able to receive some semblance of the justice they’ve pushed for since Floyd’s death, but it’s also notable simply because of how rare it is for police officers to be charged for using excessive or fatal force — let alone convicted. 

On Tuesday, a jury in Minneapolis ruled that Chauvin was guilty on all three charges: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree-manslaughter. Chauvin faces up to 40 years in prison when he is sentenced. But because he doesn’t have a criminal history, his sentence could be as short as 12.5 years, according to Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines. That said, the conviction itself is monumental.

“We’re finally seeing a recognition by the system that what [Chauvin] did was a crime,” said David Harris, a professor of law who studies police behavior at the University of Pittsburgh. “Not a terrible accident and not George Floyd’s fault.” Harris told me that the conviction recognizes Chauvin committed a crime “and you just can’t get away with that.”

That’s because police have historically gotten away with on-duty shootings and killings. According to a count by Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, there have been 140 law enforcement officers who have been arrested for murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting in the U.S. since 2005. And of that number, only 44 have been convicted of any crime — usually a lesser offense.

Experts in criminology and policing I spoke with earlier this week cautioned me that regardless of its eventual verdict, the trial shouldn’t be thought of as a referendum on policing. It is one high-profile case where one police officer was held accountable. But it won’t bring back Floyd — who left behind five children, including a young daughter — or the many other Black people killed by police before Floyd. There are larger systemic issues that remain unchanged and will continue to remain pervasive — despite overwhelming evidence that policing has long failed Black Americans.

“Criminal prosecution is not an effective way to change policing,” Rachel Harmon, a professor of law and director of the Center for Criminal Justice at the University of Virginia, told me. “It’s individualistic, whereas most of the problems in policing are institutional.” In short: An individual verdict “doesn’t particularly contribute to broader reform,” she said.

Consider, too, just how prevalent the issue of police violence is in the U.S. The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database confirms what many already knew to be the case: Black and Hispanic Americans are killed by police at much higher rates than their white counterparts. On April 11, a white officer fatally shot 20-year-old Daunte Wright just 10 miles from the courthouse where Chauvin was being tried. And days prior to Tuesday’s verdict, Chicago police released body camera footage capturing the gruesome shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo late last month. Toledo had his hands in the air as he died.  

In short, Chauvin’s indictment is not evidence that police violence will stop or that police reform will suddenly be widespread. 

It was clear to many who watched the video of Floyd’s death, including the Minneapolis police chief, that Chauvin used excessive force. (The police chief testified that Chauvin should have stopped kneeling on Floyd’s neck after a few seconds and strongly condemned Chauvin’s actions.) But at the same time, no Minneapolis police officer during the trial called for a ban on the knee-to-neck maneuver that caused Floyd’s death — although its use is discouraged by most police.

Nor was any acknowledgement among the officers who testified that police disproportionately use unnecessary force on Black people. It’s one reason why experts told me that Chauvin’s trial — regardless of the guilty verdict — might deter police from using the level of force Chauvin used on Floyd for maybe a few months or even a few years, but ultimately not really deter other instances of abusive policing. In fact, as FiveThirtyEight contributor and co-founder of Campaign Zero, a group that aims to end police violence in America, Samuel Sinyangwe noted on Twitter, the Minneapolis police seem to have reduced the use of force for only a few weeks after Floyd’s death.

Police reform also won’t be widespread unless lawmakers feel intense pressure to change the current system, or if there’s an uptick in support for the Black Lives Matter movement — which has been steadily declining, particularly among white Americans, since last summer. Notably, Black Lives Matter matters more to Black people than anyone else. And according to a recent Morning Consult survey, 71 percent of Black voters said the only fair outcome for Chauvin was to be convicted of second-degree murder in Floyd’s death (just 44 percent of white voters, by contrast, said they felt the same).

“We focus all of our energy on this idea of ‘bad apples’ and referendums on people and following this trial with so much attention,” said Kate Levine, an associate professor of law at the Cardozo School of Law. “But it’s one trial, in one city, of a really bad guy, and my feeling is no matter what happens in this trial, very little will change in policing.”

What could happen instead, experts have warned, is that people sympathetic to police officers or various municipal police units could paint Chauvin as “one bad cop” who went beyond his training in the heat of the moment, meaning he’d be viewed as an “exception” rather than an example of police violence. 

The verdict might also send the message that justice is still harder to achieve for Black Americans — who are killed at disproportionate rates by police. Floyd’s murderer may have been convicted for his crime, but perhaps only because it was captured on video, witnessed by a crowd of onlookers and took place in broad daylight.

Put another way: Supporters of reforming the criminal justice system don’t see today as the stopping point. In their eyes, the guilty verdict against Chauvin only furthers the need for more reform.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.