Will the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict change policing in America?

The jury that reached a guilty verdict on former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd signaled the conclusion of a historic police brutality trial and a key moment for policing and for the battle for racial equality in America.

Observers have talked about this case being so significant that it will stand as a watershed between the way law enforcement was held to account in the US before George Floyd was pinned by the neck under Chauvin’s knee, and after.

From the time bystander video of that drawn-out death as Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, begged for his life while Chauvin, who is white, looked defiantly into the camera, two major things shifted.

First, the Black Lives Matter movement – already battling for an end to disproportionate police killings of Black people, and for justice and equity – drove a massive new civil rights uprising that spread from Minneapolis, across the US and internationally.

It inspired marches and largely-peaceful protests coast to coast, from small towns in rural areas to America’s biggest cities.

Demonstrators march through downtown Minneapolis shortly after closing arguments in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial concluded.
Demonstrators march through downtown Minneapolis shortly after closing arguments in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial concluded. Photograph: Henry Pan/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

And the demonstrations expanded to include other deaths of defenseless Black people at the hands of police or racist agitators, such as Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and so many others in the recurring American tragedy.

The impetus rippled to other countries, where marches were held in many cities to mark local police killings as well as those in the US, and Black Lives Matter became an international rallying cry.

And to some extent into US culture more broadly, so that managements were urged to examine or accelerate long-overdue efforts to address entrenched white privilege that perpetuates a poisonous lack of diversity in corporations and organizations.

But, especially in relation to law enforcement in the US, people started asking how the egregious police killings were going to stop unless policing itself was fundamentally reformed, up to the point of entirely defunding and abolishing police departments and rethinking how cities should administer public safety, order and care.

Second, vital chunks of the traditional so-called blue wall of silence, where police departments harbor one of their own after wrongdoing and fend off demands for accountability, crumbled.

After Medaria Arradondo, the Minneapolis police chief, saw the viral bystander video of Floyd’s death, things moved quickly.

He publicly called Floyd’s killing a murder. He fired and had arrested Derek Chauvin and the three other police officers who were involved in violently arresting Floyd on suspicion of the misdemeanor of using a fake $20 bill in a Minneapolis corner store.

Medaria Arradondo, the Minneapolis police chief, addresses the media on 17 February.
Medaria Arradondo, the Minneapolis police chief, addresses the media on 17 February. Photograph: Richard Tsong-Taatarii/AP

And then he was one of the star witnesses for the prosecution at Chauvin’s murder trial, among a string of serving Minneapolis police officers who testified against their former colleague.

Arradondo, the first Black police chief in the history of Minneapolis, had previously sued the department for discrimination when he was struggling to rise through the ranks.

He told the jury he “vehemently disagreed” with Chauvin’s actions, the officer had in “no way, shape or form” followed regulations or training policies and had shown a disregard for police principle to respect “the sanctity of life”.

Even if part of the motivation was to scapegoat Chauvin while trying to show how the department has made improvements, it is still rare for a police chief to acknowledge and eject a killer cop, see them prosecuted and then testify against them.

And the department looked bad anyway because Chauvin had worked there for 19 years and had had numerous complaints about brutality made against him, while escaping consequences.

So the level of transparency and accountability demonstrated during the Chauvin case was notable.

Demonstrators march through downtown Minneapolis on 19 April.
Demonstrators march through downtown Minneapolis on 19 April. Photograph: Jemal Countess/UPI/REX/Shutterstock

Despite assertions at the trial’s opening that it was about one officer and one case, it was clear US policing and, Floyd’s relatives said themselves, America itself was on trial.

The US has a sprawling, decentralized system of policing – the country has roughly 18,000 police departments each with their own use of force policy, hiring practices and oversight mechanisms – making universal reform near impossible. And the Trump administration certainly sent limited progress towards reform hurtling backwards.

There has been no revolution in racial justice or policing in the US since George Floyd was killed on 25 May 2020.

A vote in Minneapolis last June to create a process to replace the police department with a new system of public safety, for example, soon ran into difficulty and frustration across the country is legion.

But there has been progress and George Floyd’s terrible death reverberated so comprehensively around the world that even if there are setbacks or slow-marching by conservatives, the direction is forwards.


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