Now that former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin has been sent to prison for at least 15 years (22.5 years with time off for good behavior), it’s fair to look at the lessons that have been learned and not learned from the killing of George Floyd 14 months ago.
First and foremost, the lesson is that our legal system can work. That system has never been perfect, but it remains one of the world’s best. Some people thought the sentence too lenient; others thought it too harsh. Regardless of your opinion, we urge you to give District Court Judge Peter Cahill, who presided over Chauvin’s trial, the benefit of the doubt. It was one of the longest sentences ever given to a U.S. law enforcement official who committed a crime while on duty. In making his decision, Cahill, a judge for 14 years, had access to more information than anyone not directly involved.
Too often, whichever side can bring the most resources to bear wins the case, but our adversarial system still usually results in just verdicts, with the most serious decisions turned over to a jury of our peers. We have sentencing guidelines, but judges are able to depart from them occasionally based on the unique circumstances of the case.
Second, the widespread use of cell phones and security cameras has decreased the chances of a guilty person talking their way out of trouble. Because an onlooker videoed the last moments of George Floyd’s life, the entire world had a chance to see what happened. Anyone could see that there was zero empathy for Floyd’s physical distress. We’ve learned the public expects empathy.
Third, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, the world was reminded that there are three types of people involved in protests: peaceful demonstrators, organized instigators and opportunistic looters. The last two use the first for cover. Peaceful demonstrators need to recognize when their demonstration has been hijacked and may need to reassemble at a different time or place to prevent violence and destruction, which is a civic responsibility of us all.
Fourth, unfortunately some people determined that the arrest and conviction of Chauvin means that police will be less likely to enforce the law. The result has been a stunning increase in violence, not only in Minneapolis, but across the nation. The narrative that the police are intimidated, and the criminals emboldened, gains credibility with each additional murder or carjacking. Calls for “defunding” the police by some elected officials suggests that the police need to change how they interact with the public, but for many, instead, “defunding” means putting fewer police on the street to counter the increase in violence. When violence increases, we believe more police, not fewer, are required. In addition, any law enforcement reform should not make the recruitment of police officers more difficult.
Fifth, the Minnesota Legislature responded last summer by banning chokeholds and added a few other police reform measures this year. Some believe that the reforms did not go far enough, while others thought those changes not approved would make policing more difficult. We see the measures as a compromise, the kind of work that legislative bodies used to do all the time, but that has become rare of late. The Legislature can continue debating other ideas when it reconvenes, but no one should think that it was totally unresponsive to the public’s concerns.
Finally, we all need to strive to understand the deep anger and frustration that our Black, indigenous and people of color communities feel after years of oppression and indifference to their needs and cries for justice. We need to heed the shouts for our attention and intently listen to the concerns of our fellow Americans who have been beaten down by repression for generations. Compassion and empathy can go a long way to bridge our social gaps and inequities.
If you have other ideas on how to improve law enforcement and/or maintain public order, please let us know. Perhaps we can all agree that Minnesota is a different place — and hopefully a wiser place — because of what happened on May 25, 2020.
— An editorial from the APG of East Central Minnesota Editorial Board. Reactions are welcome. Send to: email@example.com.