George, Daunte, Breonna: Policing Must Change
by Sheila Bedi
The video depicting George Floyd’s death was so violent and graphic, it inspired one of the largest social justice movements in the history of the world. People of all races and backgrounds took to the streets during the summer of 2020 in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and in protest of racist police violence. Now, Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed Mr. Floyd, was found guilty on all charges.
But a conviction for Mr. Chauvin doesn’t equate justice for Mr. Floyd. Until we limit the power and presence of police officers in our Black and brown communities and invest in the life-giving institutions that create healthy, safe communities, there will most certainly be another George Floyd.
This is in part because the United States Supreme Court permits “reasonable” police violence — even when that violence is racist and unjustifiable. Take the recent death of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, just minutes away from where George Floyd’s trial was held in Minneapolis. Veteran officer Kim Potter claimed that she had mistaken her gun for a Taser. Since then, there have been nightly protests.
During opening statements in the Chauvin trial, the prosecutor described in stark terms how Chauvin used his knee to “grind and crush the life out of Mr. Floyd” for nine minutes and 29 seconds. In response, Officer Chauvin’s defense attorney has argued that the graphic video fails to depict the incident from the officer’s perspective. According to Chauvin’s defense, his actions were reasonable because he was in a high crime area while attempting to subdue a large man who was under the influence of illicit drugs as an angry, volatile crowd began to surround him. In other words, Officer Chauvin’s defense attempts to convince the jury that what they saw on that gruesome video matters less than the threats Chauvin claims to have perceived.
The defense strategy may seem outrageous and evocative of every racial trope — equating Blackness with violence and depicting Mr. Floyd as some superhuman threat. But these arguments are deeply grounded in Supreme Court precedent.
Before there was George Floyd, there was Edward Garner. In 1974, an officer with the Memphis Police Department shot and killed Garner, a Black 15-year-old. The Memphis police officer suspected Garner of burglary and described him as a “slender” obvious child. The police officer who killed Garner was “reasonably sure” that at the time he shot Garner, the teen was unarmed and no threat to the officer. But because the officer suspected Garner of a crime — and because Garner fled from the officer — the officer shot and killed the fleeing, unarmed teenager.
Garner’s death was not an anomaly. The Memphis police had a long track record of using violence — and particularly lethal force — in racially disparate ways. At the time, Memphis police were 40 percent more likely to shoot and kill Black people than people of other races — even when you took in account other factors like severity of crime.
After his death, Garner’s father filed a lawsuit and the case wound its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court held that police officers can use lethal force against a fleeing suspect when “necessary to prevent the escape 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.” That landmark decision, Tennessee v. Garner, reinforced that violence is inherent in policing and created powerful protections for police officers who use violence. But because the police officer (by his own admission) did not perceive Garner as a threat, the court ruled in favor for Garner’s family. But the court’s decision here hinged entirely on the officer’s perception of Garner as nonthreatening. Ten years after the Garner decision, the Supreme Court made clear that when an officer perceives a threat — even when the perception is wrong — an officer can use force without violating the U.S. Constitution.
Unlike Mr. Floyd and Edward Garner, Dethorne Graham, a diabetic Black man from Charlotte, North Carolina, survived his 1984 encounter with police officers. A Charlotte police officer became suspicious of Mr. Graham after observing him leave a convenience store in a rush and pulled over the car Graham was in. While Mr. Graham tried to explain to the officer that he was in the midst of a diabetic episode, the officer perceived him as drunk and threw him on the police car. The police officer slammed Mr. Graham’s head against the car, breaking Mr. Graham’s foot in the process. Mr. Graham sued the City of Charlotte, and his case also landed before the Supreme Court. In Graham v. Connor, the court developed the use of force standard that has repeatedly been cited as a get out of jail free card for officers who kill:
“The “reasonableness” of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight … police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation."
Prosecutors have used this precise language when declining to prosecute police officers in police shootings throughout the country, including in the cases of Tamir Rice, Jacob Blake and Alton Sterling. The U.S. courts’ permissive interpretations of federal law permit significant — and rarely morally justifiable — acts of police violence. This is why Officer Chauvin’s defense team asserted that in killing Mr. Floyd, Chauvin “did what he was trained to do” as a police officer.
Our laws permit, and in some ways encourage, police violence because the courts assume that violent police are the price we must pay for safe communities. But this assumption is false. Professor Shima Baradaran Baughman of the University of Utah S.J. Quincy College of Law analyzed 50 years of national crime data. She found that “police are much less effective than we think at solving all major crimes” and “less than half of crimes that occur are reported to the police.” Multiple studies demonstrate that investments in community-based prevention programs are far more effective than investment in carceral approaches to policing. And there is little clear empirical evidence suggesting that more police create safe communities.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions fuel police violence by legitimizing the police as a means to create safe communities. But policing and other carceral approaches to public safety simply don’t work to create healthy, thriving communities. If the reasonableness inquiry related to police violence remains focused on one officer and one person suspected of wrongdoing — and not on the entire system of policing, there will continue to be more George Floyds and more Breonna Taylors.
It is beyond unreasonable to expect armed officers — most of whom have significant training in various forms of violence but comparatively very little training in de-escalation, conflict resolution, addiction and mental illness — to foster peace in our communities. This truth supports the demand to defund the police and invest in Black and brown communities to create stable housing, mental health services, jobs programs, and restorative justice systems of accountability.
To truly honor Mr. Floyd, Breonna Taylor and all the other victims of police violence, our focus cannot be on celebrating a conviction of Derek Chauvin. Instead, we must transcend the limited protections of federal law and fundamentally reshape our approach to public safety by reducing the power and presence of police in our communities, while dramatically increasing investments that would create real safety.
Sheila Bedi is a clinical professor of law at Northwestern Law and director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic.