On Tuesday, many in this country breathed the sigh of relief that George Floyd never could. A diverse jury, persuaded by a diverse prosecution team, returned guilty verdicts on all three counts against Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. It only took them 11 hours to convict the former Minneapolis police officer, and there’s no denying the catharsis that many communities are feeling in the aftermath; Chauvin became the first white officer in Minnesota history convicted in the killing of a Black civilian. Accountability, however narrowly tailored to this officer in this case, was achieved. That’s important.
It’s also important that the trial itself, streamed live to the world for weeks, was a galvanizing, water-cooler event for America. It exposed in real time the lengths to which a police officer—facing irrefutable video confirmation of his crimes—would try to convince us not to believe our own eyes. The defense team often relied on tired, racist tropes along the way. Chauvin’s lawyers repeatedly painted the victim as somehow simultaneously drug-addled and superhuman, and the “crowd” as some heaving BLM/antifa hybrid “distracting” Chauvin from Floyd. The jury, and America, bought none of it. While Derek Chauvin deserved and received a robust defense, how he used it was telling.
And yet, while our nation’s collective fixation on the guilt phase of the trial was valuable, we should abandon that fixation for Chauvin’s sentencing. And for the trials of the other three cops on the scene that day. And for any eventual criminal trials of the Capitol insurrectionists and Atlanta spa killer, to name two other examples. Excessive focus on the judicial proceedings in these individual criminal cases would likely only distract from the structural issues at the root of these crimes. What’s worse, focusing too much on harsh punishments for the alleged perpetrators only legitimizes a criminal justice system that defaults to excess incarceration—usually for the very communities these prosecutions would nominally protect.
In other words, America’s obsession with the criminal legal system as panacea is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place. That obsession with punishment is exactly why Minneapolis Police sent four armed-and-dangerous cops after George Floyd for allegedly—allegedly—passing a fake twenty. It’s why 20-year-old Daunte Wright in neighboring Brooklyn Center could be pulled over—and ultimately killed—by armed-and-dangerous police for having expired tags and dangling air fresheners. It’s also why Black and Brown people across America are still caged and surveilled by the millions, despite decades of falling crime.
This is not to say that the prosecutions listed above will not serve an important purpose. The country has become painfully aware of our two-tier justice system, and needs to see the law applied equally as often as possible, even if historically that has been a rarity in the United States. We also need accountability for the perpetrators of these heinous acts, and right now the criminal legal system is the best we’ve got. But that is not why people marched by the millions in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
We have tried using criminal punishment as a replacement for prophylactic public policy for decades in this country. It has failed. And it will be no different for police violence and systemic racism. Indeed, most people and even most law enforcement would agree that the Chauvin conviction will not solve these broader issues. Yet I worry that those same people will obsess over the length of Chauvin’s sentence, believing wrongly that more time equals more justice. It does not. They will obsess over the trials of the other officers—particularly if those trials are televised—believing wrongly that more rolling heads equal more justice. They do not. And if guilty verdicts ring from Washington D.C. to Minneapolis to Atlanta in the coming months and years, I worry they will offer a temporary polling bump for the criminal law as national healing mechanism when, in reality, it is a devastating crutch.
More justice is actually more folks never killed by cops in the first place—indeed, unless absolutely necessary, never approached by them at all. We need to get armed police out of the business of low-level enforcement entirely. We need them out of schools and extracted from interactions with people suffering from mental health or other disabilities (a reform cops themselves have welcomed). Increased accountability via abolishing qualified immunity, making cops easier to fire earlier on, and putting their misconduct on lists available to the public, are all necessities. Prosecutors must develop the independence to snuff false testimony, tampering, and other misconduct by refusing to call compromised officers to the stand, even if it costs convictions.
Finally, these inward-facing reforms must be coupled with and outstripped by reinvestments in vulnerable communities via education, housing, public health, and so much more. In short, municipalities—and the nation by extension—must completely rethink their responses to public safety and public health, prioritizing professional, trained, non-lethal responders, thereby making police the last resort and prosecution the rarest of necessary evils.
But that won’t happen if we’re all glued to the next criminal trial of the century. And that would dishonor George Floyd’s legacy even worse than Derek Chauvin’s defense team did.