When the jury in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial registered its verdict on Tuesday, finding the former police officer guilty of all charges in the murder of George Floyd, Fox News commentators were ready with their takes.
“Clearly, the verdict is supported by the facts,” said Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, who joined The Five, the network’s weekday evening panel show, to discuss the trial. “This case was extremely unusual. … It is rare that you even get a picture of the victim in a murder case, other than maybe an autopsy photo. But here we had a living, breathing person that the jury was able to relate to, every day, day after day, watching the trauma of what he went through: begging for air, begging to breathe.”
Pirro, a former judge, said the jury had made “an emotional as well as an intellectual decision,” then quickly clarified that she wasn’t casting doubt on the facts of the case. “Right now,” she went on, “what people need to understand is that the American justice system works.”
Pirro’s compliments to the jury might come as a surprise to those who’ve followed her show, which doesn’t exactly rally viewers to the cause of racial justice. But it’s not too far off from what her ideological peers—and, crucially, members of law enforcement—have been saying in the year since Floyd’s murder. It’s tempting to see this as progress: When even a Fox News personality celebrates Chauvin’s conviction, isn’t that a sign that the movement against police abuse and for Black civil rights is making headway? But Pirro’s response to the Chauvin verdict instead suggests that the political right will have no trouble assimilating this particular murder into its existing worldview of dangerous thugs, heroic cops, and a culture of law enforcement that needs no dramatic overhaul. You’ve heard of “one bad apple”? Well, Chauvin’s that apple.
Blue Lives Matter devotees have long acknowledged the so-called bad apples scattered among U.S. police departments. Chauvin the murderer, in this view, is the exception that proves the rule. His conviction isn’t the very least Floyd’s community should expect after a neighbor was murdered, by a government employee, with their tax dollars. It’s proof that the system as it exists is not broken at all, that those advocating for systemic change are ginning up support for a radical agenda by manufacturing outrage over nothing, and that when something truly bad happens—like the murder of George Floyd—justice is served. Just last week, Pirro said of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who was killed by a Chicago police officer last month, “He is a criminal. This is a war. This is not the time to feel sorry for anybody.” On Tuesday, just after Pirro reassured Fox News viewers that “the American justice system works,” she suggested that Chauvin’s conviction has made protest superfluous. “For all those people that want to burn down streets, just let the courts do its job,” she said.
Anyone invested in the “few bad apples” theory of why U.S. police kill about 1,000 people each year couldn’t ask for a better man to make an example of than Derek Chauvin. Last summer, as Floyd’s murder prompted weeks of protests and violent police crackdowns on demonstrators, I interviewed several current and former police officers from all over the country about Floyd’s murder. Not only did every single one of them tell me that Chauvin was clearly in the wrong, but they also said they didn’t know any cops who’d defend him. “I do think Chauvin should be charged with murder, and everyone I’ve talked to agrees,” said Maurice Henry, a patrol officer in Kansas.
With Chauvin, the officers told me, it was immediately clear that his actions were unjustified. Katie Miller, a former officer with the Metropolitan Police Department in D.C., said she’d witnessed a lot of her old colleagues vocally denouncing Chauvin, which she’d never seen in the wake of previous cases of police violence. “Usually there’s a little hesitation about ‘Let’s wait and see where the investigation goes,’ ” she said. “But when it came to seeing that video, I knew, and my former colleagues knew, that what they were seeing was enough to condemn him morally and obviously that criminal charges would be forthcoming.”
Jacob, a cop in Georgia, said there was simply no way to justify what Chauvin did. “That’s how extreme the situation was with Floyd, between the fact that it was all recorded, to the total lack of humanity of the officers involved, to the eight to nine minutes of watching someone die, where you really can’t say anything in defense,” he said. “And traditionally, as cops, we are defensive. But in this situation, everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, that was jacked up for sure.’ ”
Chauvin’s own colleagues, the officers who might have otherwise erected a “blue wall of silence” around one of their own, were quick to agree. Several police officers from inside the Minneapolis Police Department, including Chief Medaria Arradondo, testified against Chauvin in his trial. What Chauvin did “in no way shape or form is anything that is by policy. It is not part of our training, and it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values,” Arradondo said on the stand. Police Inspector Katie Blackwell, who formerly led the department’s training program, testified that officers are not taught to restrain suspects the way Chauvin did. Other department leaders testified that Chauvin used inappropriate and unnecessarily prolonged force against Floyd, in contravention of department policies.
Experts say such a robust showing of cops testifying for the prosecution of an indicted officer is almost unheard of. But because the publicly available video of Floyd’s murder was so complete, and so brutal, there was no other way for the department to manage the fallout. “They’re throwing Chauvin under the bus because that keeps the bus intact,” explained Howard University law professor Justin Hansford in an interview with Vox. “We often think of the blue wall of silence as a sort of solidarity move or a loyalty pact but often it’s really just a CYA move. … These officers don’t want to be associated with those pictures of Chauvin on Floyd’s neck.”
The same can be said of those rushing to agree that Chauvin committed a gruesome murder while continuing to insist that there’s nothing wrong with U.S. policing at large. Responding to the verdict on Fox News with Pirro on Tuesday, conservative commentator Greg Gutfeld drew the distinction. “Everybody agreed this case was disgusting and ugly and there should be justice,” he said, as if to place himself on the right side of history. It was only activists who created “the perception of division” around the case, Gutfeld said, by claiming that Floyd’s murder “means that cops are all racist” and that “it’s not a bug in the system, it’s the system itself.” Conservatives are already spinning Chauvin’s conviction as a victory for their own ideology, as if they’ve been advocating for the aggressive prosecution of killer cops all along. Sean Hannity, who was critical of Chauvin when the video of the murder was first released, spent his time on the air on Tuesday complaining that the few bad apples get all the attention. This narrative creates space for people who were horrified by Floyd’s murder but feel uncomfortable with “defund the police” rhetoric to move on with the satisfaction that justice was served, case closed.
It’s easy to see how that could happen. Look closely at these condemnations of Chauvin, and you’ll often find a hidden defense of the rest of the force. When Arradondo says Chauvin’s actions were “not part of our ethics or our values,” he’s saying the Minneapolis Police Department operates with sound ethics and values, though the facts say otherwise: Multiple other MPD officers have killed multiple other people in damning circumstances in recent years. Likewise, when I spoke to police officers last summer, one veteran officer told me that Floyd’s murder seemed different than some other police shootings because it was “more of a clear case, versus past examples where officers are struggling with somebody.”
The officer meant that it was easy to see at first glance that Chauvin had no reason to fear for his life while Floyd was prone, handcuffed, and unresponsive. But the other cops the officer invoked—the ones who were struggling with somebody when they killed that somebody—took people’s lives, too. Those somebodys had names—some we know, many we don’t—and there’s no reason to assume that they had any more reason to die at the hands of the police than George Floyd. It’s hard to single out Floyd’s murder as uniquely heinous, and Chauvin’s conviction as uniquely deserved, without implying that all the other police killings are less heinous, and all the other killers less deserving of punishment. Maybe that’s a sad inevitability, or maybe that’s the point.
In my six years at Slate, I’ve written about multiple national elections, social movements, and major cultural phenomena. With support from Slate Plus members, I’ve also gotten to dive deep into stories and angles no other outlets were covering, and that Slate wouldn’t have otherwise had the time or resources to tackle. —Christina Cauterucci, senior writer