Much of America exhaled. They saw Derrick Chauvin kill George Floyd but they had been told that police officers are not convicted—that there is at least an informal club that marches to one refrain: “we’ve got your back.” When the verdict was read “whew” was the response.
The truth is that a very high standard must be met in criminal cases. For a person to be convicted of homicide the evidence has to combine to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In the case of police, who are charged with a crime at a crime scene, they have a ready-made defense. They are, after all, the front-line of protection and can claim that the State’s evidence, presented by a prosecutor, is simply one way of looking at the facts. A good defense attorney will explain that in threatening circumstances, where reaction to protect or defend is measured in split seconds, we should yield to the trained senses of our protectors—the police.
But, in the matter of George Floyd, the circumstances were not threatening; split second decisions were not needed and “take a look at the video.” Having prosecuted and defended a few cases, back in the day, I was always looking for a way to shape evidence into indisputable findings. In the Floyd case, there was indisputable evidence; it turned the public into jurors and the public nodded its approval when twelve of their number declared guilty.
There is, of course, much talk of police reform and I am sure some is needed. I would begin by emphasizing the use of weapons that disable, not kill. But, to those who want to defund the police I would say be careful what you wish for. Crime has spiked in recent months and the “defund the police” movement has certainly not helped.
But let me come back to the evidence. Video evidence has become more and more available as the possession of cell phone cameras is now ubiquitous. And for those on the front-line, require body cameras. This one step would lead to indisputable evidence increasingly facing off with “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
Both before and after the trial ended politicians were camera-ready. They have public personas and narratives and constituents to please. But, I would be careful about using the White House bully pulpit, in particular, to accuse American institutions of systemic racism. Systemic is most often used in medicine, to denote that a disease is systemic, rather than localized. In a heterogeneous nation filled with wildly divergent circumstances and demographics, the word systemic might be best left to medicine.
I spent several years in law enforcement as an Assistant Attorney General in my home state of Missouri. My sense then and now is that the overwhelming population of policemen, prosecutors, defenders and judges are doing their best to live up to the image and creed of impartial justice. Plus, law enforcement agencies are much more diverse today than in my day. Thankfully.
Is their prejudice? Yes, humanity is guilty. Are there people who wear the badge who shouldn’t? Yes. Does the evidentiary standard in criminal cases result in some guilty people going free? Yes. All and more combine to make the job of law enforcement more difficult and at times indefensible.
Finally, for those who were watching and listening they got an education in real life challenges and possibilities. The trial of Derrick Chauvin was not a made for TV movie or series. It was a dogged display of justice at its best and a dramatic lesson in how the video moment can neuter the defense.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.