Stephen Gottlieb: The Meaning Of The Chauvin Verdict
Thank heavens Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the murder of George Floyd. The jury came back relatively quickly which signaled to many of us that they had reached a guilty verdict. Hung juries take a long time. This jury was obviously convinced by the video.
But what does this mean for the future. There have already been more killings. If it is going to take nine minutes worth of video to show that police have murdered someone, it won’t mean much. In the early 1970s my office and many others were struggling with inability to pin responsibility on police for killing so-called “fleeing suspects” – in other words shooting people in the back. I remember bringing the problem to my students at St. Louis U. Law School – I was teaching legal research and writing there as an adjunct. My students were excited to have a real and serious problem to crunch their minds on and went to work enthusiastically. It was a national problem and another office managed to get one such case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Tennessee v. Garner, the Supreme Court held that “deadly force” may not be “used unless it is necessary to prevent the escape [of an “apparently unarmed suspected felon”] and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”
At the time it seemed like progress. But every part of that so-called rule has been turned into a set of weasel words that scoot away from any attempt to pin them down. Needless to say, the Court and all the legal offices working on it hadn’t solved anything.
The intervening half century has been filled with repeated disappointment. To a large portion of the public anything police do seems to be in response to a significant threat of death or serious physical injury. Police just might be scared – scared of keys being inserted in a front door, scared of a boy’s back, scared by a man’s lip – the “bravest” are the scardiest.
We used to fret about the impunity of law enforcement in the South. The Klan worked with “law enforcement.” Two white and one Black man, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman had been working to help Blacks register to vote. They were arrested, then released by police in Mississippi in conjunction with a group of Klansmen who followed, stopped, killed and buried the three young men. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the federal government brought the resources of the FBI and the Department of Justice to bear. A federal prosecution put most of the killers in prison for at least a few years. It took the killing of two white men and federal involvement to get those convictions. But the rule of impunity continued wherever there was no extensive federal involvement.
The effort to prevent Blacks from voting has never stopped. And the defense of police who are racists or who are in cahoots with racists has never stopped – it has spread north. Do I have to list the names of all those whose murders by police are still unpunished?
Impunity has no place in a civilized country, not for cops, not for people who storm the Capitol, not for people who incite riots and blame those trying to stop their misbehavior, not for the high and mighty any more than for the low and vulnerable. Impunity eats the guts out of a country. Police and their unions who insist on impunity are entitled only to our utter disrespect.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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