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After Chauvin's guilty verdict: A trial for American policing, the struggle for public trust begins anew

Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
·8 min read
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When Michael Brown, a Black teenager, was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, a special White House panel quickly offered up a wave of reforms expected to help guide law enforcement through the most fraught encounters.

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing produced 59 recommendations, following testimony from 140 witnesses.

“Building trust and legitimacy on both sides of the police-citizen divide is not only the first pillar of this task force’s report but also the foundational principle underlying this inquiry into the nature of the relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” the study group concluded.

Obama with Laurie Robinson, right, Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Criminology, Law, & Society at George Mason University, and Charles Ramsey, left, then commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, during a meeting  about his Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Obama with Laurie Robinson, right, Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Criminology, Law, & Society at George Mason University, and Charles Ramsey, left, then commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, during a meeting about his Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Just six years later, the findings in what was then regarded as a landmark analysis of modern policing have been obscured in a new wave of deadly actions that have renewed calls for re-examining American law enforcement.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, found guilty Tuesday for the murder of George Floyd, now represents only one exhibit in a growing body of evidence in which police officers’ use of lethal force faces unprecedented public scrutiny, condemnation and demands for change.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, in a statement immediately after the verdict, said the decisions represented a new era of police accountability to end the "recurring and enduring deaths at the hands of law enforcement."

Derek Chauvin listens as a verdict is read on the charges he faced in the death of George Floyd, at the courthouse in Minneapolis on April 20, 2021.
Derek Chauvin listens as a verdict is read on the charges he faced in the death of George Floyd, at the courthouse in Minneapolis on April 20, 2021.

'We haven't learned anything'

During the 14-day Chauvin trial, new images of fatal police encounters in Chicago; Brooklyn Center, Minnesota; and elsewhere have competed with the now-familiar video clips of Floyd pleading for his life while pinned under Chauvin's knee.

"It's like we haven't learned anything," said Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University who studies crimes involving police. "I don't know if we've made any meaningful progress" since the 2015 White House policing report.

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Yet Stinson and other analysts said the findings outlined in the study commissioned by the Obama administration are likely more relevant than at the time they were issued.

"If you go back to that report, I think you will find a lot of meat is left on that bone," Stinson said. "There is a lot there to work with."

A reckoning with the system, a break in the 'blue wall'

During closing arguments in the Chauvin trial Monday, Minneapolis prosecutor Steve Schleicher sought to separate the murder case against the former officer from a referendum against American policing.

"To be clear, this case is called the state of Minnesota vs. Derek Chauvin," the prosecutor told the jury. "This is not called the state of Minnesota vs. the police."

But Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, said that the broader implications of the case and policing at-large cannot be ignored.

"In an external sense, the prosecutor's argument is true," Walker said. "But I think the public's focus on the related problems with policing is very widespread and deep. ... I think there will be a response and that mayors and governors will demand more policing reforms."

Since Floyd's death in May, Walker said he tracked community reaction in the country's 50 largest cities, concluding that local officials approved an array of changes to law enforcement tactics, from bans on police chokeholds to prohibitions on so-called "no-knock warrants" that led to the death of a Kentucky woman, Breonna Taylor, during a police raid last year.

Walker said 84% of the cities approved at least some changes in local law enforcement policy or operation in just a four-month period, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, last year.

"I am guardedly optimistic" that the pace of reform will continue post-Chauvin, Walker said.

The professor also noted that Chauvin's trial, specifically the prosecution testimony of Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and other city commanders who condemned the officer's tactics, represented an important break from traditional so-called "blue wall of silence" in which police have been hesitant to criticize fellow officers — let alone bear witness against them in criminal trials.

Minneapolis Police Chief Arradondo, testifying to police training, says Derek Chauvin's restraint on George Floyd was an ethics violation.
Minneapolis Police Chief Arradondo, testifying to police training, says Derek Chauvin's restraint on George Floyd was an ethics violation.

"That command officers were willing to testify set an exceptional precedent," Walker said. "You cannot discount the significance of that and what it signals to other police chiefs."

Following the Chauvin verdicts Tuesday, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris also called on Congress to follow through on proposed legislation that bears Floyd's name.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would bolster police accountability, make it easier to prosecute law enforcement officers for misconduct and create a national registry to track officers who try to move from one department to another.

The bill has stalled in the Senate where Republicans have criticized several aspects of the bill, including a provision eliminating some legal immunity for officers designed to shield them from unwarranted complaints.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, who Tuesday said the Chauvin jury had fulfilled its "civic duty," said a federal civil rights inquiry into Floyd's death is continuing

David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who writes extensively about police conduct, said any rethinking of law enforcement operations must also include shifting responsibilities for calls involving the homeless, mentally ill, even traffic infractions away from police.

"We just don't need people with guns and handcuffs for everything," Harris said. "But any measure of future success has to involve a reckoning with the system that brought us here."

'A guardian – rather than a warrior –mindset'

Until Floyd's death last year, no brighter public spotlight had been cast on aggressive policing than in the aftermath of Brown's death in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.

Provocative law enforcement tactics, especially those used to put down the civil unrest following Brown's death, prompted the formation of the presidential task force that delivered a national warning of the potential perils when police agencies lose the trust of the communities they serve.

"Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian – rather than a warrior – mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public," the task force concluded. "Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community."

Every aspect of policing, from crime reduction to officer training, hinges on that trust, the task force found.

The brutal manner and public nature of Floyd's death represent a new call to action that builds on the lessons of Ferguson, Harris said.

"The idea that police officers are warriors means that in war a certain number of casualties are acceptable," Harris said. "That has no place in law enforcement. That just has to go."

18,000 police agencies in the US

Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general who co-chaired the policing task force, said there were "high hopes" that the task force's work would make a difference.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, co-chair of  the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, listens to witnesses before the panel at the Newseum in Washington.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, co-chair of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, listens to witnesses before the panel at the Newseum in Washington.

"But we realized because of the decentralized nature of policing (there an estimated 18,000 police agencies) that this was not going to produce an accelerated solution," Robinson said. "This was going to be a long haul."

"The next step for policing has to involve putting pressure on law enforcement leadership and labor unions," said Robinson, now a professor of criminology, law and society at George Mason University. "They are going to have to think long and hard about what lessons have been learned."

At the end of the task force's work in 2015, Robinson recalled that then-President Barack Obama asked her and co-chairman Charles Ramsey, a former police chief in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, if there was an aspect of law enforcement that required more examination.

Robinson said that they immediately agreed that a closer study of officer hiring and recruitment was needed.

"If there was one more thing that needed to be added, it was more attention to who was being brought into policing and what kind of officers are going to staff police departments going forward," she said. "That is fundamental to the relationship between officers and their communities."

Jim Burch, president of the National Police Foundation, which is in the midst of an examination of how the Obama administration report was applied, described the document as a "compass" for law enforcement.

"It's not like we don't know what to do," Burch said. "It's just that we haven't found the courage to do it."

Online civil-rights group Color of Change said its 7 million members will be watching closely.

"The Chauvin trial may be over, but what comes next will be the consequential moment in our history," Color of Change President Rashad Robinson said in a statement. "When you call out injustice, ears are at attention; when you amplify our message of justice and equity, decision makers take notice; when you stop funding police and their enablers, heads turn; and when you use your power to demand systemic change, Black people will be safe in our country."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Derek Chauvin found guilty: What does it mean for police reform?