Reasonable doubt. That’s all Derek Chauvin’s defense team needed to create in one Minneapolis juror’s mind during the murder trial to avoid a guilty verdict. Just create a tiny reasonable doubt that the mountain of professional testimony, medical evidence, and eyewitness video was wrong to blame Chauvin for the death of George Floyd. It didn’t happen.
In the court of street opinion, the legal standard of doubt has been met long ago in a related frequent scenario. Can there remain doubt (reasonable or otherwise) that justice is dispensed unfairly by law enforcement officers in split-second decisions? Derek Chauvin put not a thumb on the scales of justice, but a knee on George Floyd’s neck. And not for a split-second – or even a minute – but for more than nine minutes. Had it not been for the bystander video by teenager Darnella Frazier (an instant frontrunner for a Pulitzer Prize in the “Breaking News Photography” category), we would have relied on the official Minneapolis Police press release, “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.”
Can there be reasonable doubt that “Protect and Serve,” a part of the motto of most police departments, is not the operative standard when officers approach people of color? Accounts of individual cases can be inflammatory, but large multiyear studies show convincing evidence that Black and Latino citizens suffer more than their population share of routine police stops, arrests, excessive force, incarcerations, and deaths.
As the incidents of excessive force pile up in communities that might earlier have said, “That can’t happen here,” there is growing recognition it might be part of the nationwide fabric of 20th century policing. Even here, Santa Barbara county recently paid $850K to the family of a man killed by five armed officers who committed a tactical error that put themselves at risk and who chose excessive force to rescue themselves from a single suicidal man with a knife.
We see the nation doubt when officers’ written official incident reports are later directly contradicted by body camera and bystander videos. We feel that doubt while watching police union performance art that routinely claims an officer’s actions were justified due to training adherence or exigent circumstance or ludicrous complete absolution, “The officer did everything right.”
It could be an artifact of the media. Maybe we hear or notice more about police excessive force when a police killing is headline news. It would be a shame to admit that the incidents of police excessive force and killings have been with us all along, but we just didn’t know it. Since the beginning of testimony in the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis on March 29, there have been at least 64 deaths at the hands of law enforcement nationwide, with Blacks and Latinos representing more than half.
Buffalo Springfield songwriter Stephen Stills’ 1966 classic protest anthem starts, “There’s something happening here, but what is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware.” Written about Los Angeles protests and the police reaction to them, the 55-year old lyrics have a disquieting resonance today for all of us.