Editor’s Note: Miriam E. Rocah is the elected Westchester County District Attorney and a former federal prosecutor in the State of New York. The views expressed in this commentary are reflective of the author’s perspective.
WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY — April 28, 2021 —The swift guilty verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin does not bring George Floyd back to life. And the recent police killings of Daunte Wright in Minnesota and Adam Toledo in Illinois, along with so many other tragic and troubling incidents, make clear that American society has a problem that will not be solved by holding just one police officer accountable for murder.
But the outcome of the trial could mark a turning point in the growing nationwide movement to chart a path toward police reform and accountability. Now, to truly end the killing of Black and brown people by police in America and other abuses of power, we need to commit to bold and transformative action. And by “we,” I mean everyone in law enforcement who truly cares about justice.
What led a jury to convict Chauvin of murder when less than 2% of the police killings every year since 2005 have resulted in charges even being filed against the officers? When only seven other fatal police shootings have resulted in murder convictions since 2005, according to a database maintained by Philip Stinson at Bowling Green State University.
I think it largely comes down to three factors: The prosecutors did their job and treated this case and Chauvin’s actions like any other case, without special treatment because he was a police officer; the murder was recorded on video; and an unprecedented number of fellow law enforcement witnesses, including the Minneapolis police chief, testified that Chauvin’s actions were antithetical to police practice and standards.
All of this is rare, but none of it has to be.
Prosecutors must address law enforcement misconduct, corruption and unwarranted use of force in the same way we approach and investigate any other crime. We must focus on the evidence and not make assumptions about the defendant’s intent just because he or she wears a badge.
This approach should not apply only to situations in which someone has been killed at the hands of police. Police departments and prosecutors must be more proactive in vigorously pursuing much lesser forms of misconduct, such as lying on police reports about confidential informants, having the consent to conduct searches, or other matters; excessive use of force in restraining an uncooperative detainee; and off-duty road rage incidents.
Failing to discipline officers for misconduct could potentially instill a sense of impunity.
Chauvin himself faced 18 complaints prior to the killing of George Floyd. The Minneapolis Police Department did not provide additional details about the nature of the complaints but only two were “closed with discipline,” which amounted to a letter of reprimand. Those who are entrusted to enforce the law can’t be allowed to break it, so when this kind of conduct violates criminal statutes, we must prosecute it as we would any other crime.
But prosecutors cannot make these cases alone. Holding bad cops accountable requires cooperation from good police officers and, critically, the police unions, whose obligation to protect their members should not include standing in the way of rooting out corruption and abuse. Addressing all types of police misconduct is simply the only way to restore the public’s faith in our system of policing — something that every dedicated, law-abiding officer and prosecutor should care about.
We also cannot rely on the courage and opportunity of bystanders to film encounters with police. Body cameras for all police must become the norm and the standard. By 2016, nearly half of law enforcement agencies in the US acquired body-worn cameras, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey. That number is likely to be higher today, but they are not uniformly required.
Funding these cameras must be a priority for police departments and the footage must be preserved to ensure the best evidence is available in these cases. Police departments should also require all officers to activate their cameras at the start of their shifts and release relevant footage — especially in fatal police shootings — in a timely manner.
The jury’s decision to convict Chauvin of murder and manslaughter is just the beginning of a long road ahead to end abuse and mistreatment by law enforcement.
We must make changes to repair the public’s broken trust and, ultimately, make everyone safer. I call upon my partners in law enforcement to join and support me in these efforts.