Is the Chauvin verdict a turning point for U.S. policing?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck during an arrest last May, was found guilty of murder and manslaughter on Tuesday.

“Today, we are able to breathe again,” Floyd’s brother Philonise told reporters after the verdict was announced. His sentiments were echoed in a wave of statements from politicians, celebrities and racial justice advocates who noted how exceedingly rare it is for police officers to be convicted for killing people while on duty.

Video footage taken by a bystander that showed Chauvin pinning down George Floyd as Floyd repeatedly said “I can’t breath” before losing consciousness set off a wave of protests that ultimately grew into a nationwide movement for racial justice. Although it started as a campaign to root out police brutality, the movement expanded to bring light to systemic inequities permeating American society.

Why there’s debate

Floyd’s murder will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the flashpoints in modern American history. Advocates for police reform hope Chauvin’s conviction will itself prove to be a turning point for the role of the police in the U.S. While they acknowledge that issues with policing are far from resolved, many argue that the guilty verdict provided important proof that officers are not above the law. “I would not call [Tuesday’s] verdict justice. ... But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice,” said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.

The willingness of Chauvin’s fellow officers — including the chief of police — to testify against him could be a potential sign that the “blue wall of silence” that has historically protected cops might be crumbling, some argued. There are also hopes that the high-profile trial might invigorate efforts to pass police reform legislation, like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that is currently stalled in Congress.

Others are less optimistic that the verdict will mark a moment of true change. They argue that, as emblematic of police violence as Floyd’s murder became, it is not representative of the way most police killings take place. There are even concerns among those who support defunding or abolishing the police that the Chauvin’s conviction might impede that goal by creating the impression that the current system is working.

What’s next

Chauvin will have the opportunity to appeal his conviction, though legal experts say his chances of having the verdict reversed are slim. He is expected to be sentenced in eight weeks and faces up to 40 years in prison. The three former officers who were also involved in the arrest face charges of aiding and abetting Floyd’s killing in a trial scheduled to start Aug. 23.

The Department of Justice announced Wednesday that it will open an investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department, an inquiry that could result in federally mandated changes to the department's practices.

Perspectives

Chauvin’s conviction is the start of major police reform

“Law enforcement and the criminal justice system will see significant changes at the local, state, and federal level over the next generation. And when historians and political scientists of the future look back at what sparked such significant change against entrenched interests, they'll look back on cases like the Derek Chauvin murder trial.” — Marcus Johnson, Newsweek

The conviction is, at best, the bare minimum of accountability

“The next victim is unlikely to die in a way that white people will recognize as flagrantly unjust. The next unarmed Black man killed by police is unlikely to spend nine minutes calling out for his mother as the cops slowly choke the life out of him. Most of us die far too quickly for the white news media to see our agony. The Chauvin conviction is important, but it’s not repeatable. It’s a floor, not a ladder.” — Elie Mystal, The Nation

Chuavin’s trial set a clear limit on the amount of force police can get away with

“Police have a very tough job, dealing with uncooperative and often dangerous suspects, many with drug-abuse and health problems — such as the ones Floyd had, which likely contributed to his death. But the police power to use necessary force, which must necessarily be superior force, never justifies excessive force. That is the message of this emphatic verdict.” — Editorial, National Review

It’s up to lawmakers to make this trial a moment of real change

“Yet we cannot forget how many other families … have been denied any semblance of accountability or justice. Such tragedies will repeat in the absence of substantive police reforms. We will be forced to relive the cycle of death, anger and injustice if our elected officials continue to fail in their duty to act.” — Editorial, Sacramento Bee

The trial may distort the need for systemic change

“There are some who watched yesterday's proceedings, saw a jury of Chauvin's peers find him guilty, and effectively concluded that ‘the system works.’ It's a perspective that questions the need for sweeping reforms, since the former officer in this case was charged, tried, and convicted of murder.” — Steve Benen, MSNBC

Floyd’s murder isn’t representative of most police killings

“Chauvin’s conviction does not automatically signal a new era of police accountability. The Floyd case was the exception of all exceptions.” — David Leonhardt, New York Times

Police officers will be more likely to stand up to their colleagues who go too far

“The judicial system worked. It usually does. It won't bring George Floyd back, or eliminate all bad policing, but police are now on notice. And good cops still vastly outnumber bad ones.” — Quin Hillyer, Washington Examiner

Chauvin’s conviction is part of a trend of increasing police accountability

“If you look at the history of policing in the U.S., it’s apparent that, for all its rarity, we’re still seeing more prosecutions and convictions for police who kill people in the line of duty than at pretty much any other point. … So while I’m hesitant to suggest this particular trial might be a turning point, I think it’s clear that we are in the midst of an aberration. How durable that will end up being, I don’t know.” — Zak Cheney-Rice, New York

The trial was the first step in a long process of reform

“At best the outcome of this trial must be seen as an early stage in the nation’s reckoning with social justice issues, not the end of the journey.” — Editorial, Dallas Morning News

The impact of the trial shouldn’t be exaggerated

“In this moment of so-called racial reckoning, fair-minded people may be tempted to make Chauvin’s conviction bigger than what it really is. Tuesday’s result brings an end to the trial phase, and it’s important. But this is just one case; we can’t even be sure there would have been a trial had the homicide not been recorded.” — LZ Granderson, Los Angeles Times

Accountability isn’t a substitute for true reform

“The goal is not to have trials that hold police accountable after the fact but to have a criminal justice system remade in a way that finally dismantles the effects of institutional racism. Until then, there will not be full justice for George Floyd.” — Julian Zelizer, CNN

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (4), Reuters