On Tuesday, after deliberating for 10 hours, a Minneapolis jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd. The verdict came in the aftermath of multiple police killings in the past month, including the shootings of 20-year-old Daunte Wright and 13-year-old Adam Toledo. And just minutes before the verdict was read, a police officer in Columbus, OH, shot 16-year-old girl Ma'Khia Bryant four times, killing her.
Many shared mixed emotions about the Chauvin trial outcome and the ongoing fight for true police accountability. “The very least George’s family deserved was the accountability the system allows. I am holding them close. ‘Cause justice is them hugging their George. And nothing else. Dismantle the system that killed him,” Brittany Packnett Cunningham, an activist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, tweeted.
“This verdict is not justice. Frankly, I don’t even think we call it full accountability because there are multiple officers that were there,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said during an Instagram Live. “Wasn’t just Derek Chauvin. And I don’t want this moment to be framed as the system working, because it’s not working.”
In fact, the system has protected officers like Chauvin for decades, with very few cases of officers even losing their jobs, let alone facing federal charges or monetary reparations, for killing Black and brown people. Police officers kill around 1,000 people a year, according to a database compiled by The Washington Post. Data from Mapping Police Violence, a group that tracks deadly police encounters in lieu of a national database, shows that police have killed more than 6,800 civilians between 2013 and 2018. Since Chauvin's trial began on March 29, police have killed at least 64 Americans — more than half of them Black and Latinx.
And yet, since 2005, only 121 officers have been arrested on charges of murder or manslaughter after killing someone while on-duty, according to data compiled by Philip M. Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, as reported by The New York Times. And of the 121 officers arrested, only 95 of their cases concluded, and only 44 were convicted, often of the lesser charge, per the same report. Four officers were convicted of murder.
In other words, out of the officers arrested for murder or manslaughter, only about one-third are ever convicted of a crime.
“Police know what to say and what to tell a jury and what to tell a judge to make those folks believe that they were reasonably in fear,” Kate Levine, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, told The New York Times. “Even if there are other witnesses, those witnesses just don’t get the same amount of credibility determination from prosecutors, judges, juries.”
Of course, charges and convictions represent a very rare method of so-called police department "accountability." What’s far more common is an officer resigning and/or stepping down, as was the case in the death of Rayshard Brooks. After Brooks was shot and killed by a police officer while sleeping in his car in a Wendy’s drive-thru, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields stepped down, a police officer was fired, and another officer took leave. Louisville, KY, Police Chief Steve Conrad was fired after officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her home, and then police killed restaurant owner David McAtee amid protests. But no one was ever charged for Taylor's death, and it's more common than not that police aren't ever convicted of shooting and killing a person the way that regular civilians are.
Even when a police officer isn’t forced to resign or relieved of duty, they’re often handed down nothing more than a disciplinary slap on the wrist. In 2019, USA Today led an effort to obtain and publish the disciplinary records of police officers. The investigation found that more than 85,000 law enforcement officers have been investigated or disciplined for misconduct over the past 10 years, including 22,924 investigations of officers using excessive force; 3,145 allegations of rape, child molestation, and other sexual misconduct; and 2,307 cases of domestic violence.
Another consistent form of “accountability” is payments to victims and/or their families in cases of police brutality and wrongful deaths. After obtaining public records from 31 of the 50 cities with the highest police-to-civilian ratio in the U.S., FiveThirtyEight released an early-2021 report that found cities have spent more than $3 billion in misconduct lawsuit settlements in the past 10 years. It was reported that George Floyd’s family agreed to a $27 million wrongful death settlement from the city of Minneapolis prior to Chauvin’s conviction. And yet, $27 million will not bring George Floyd back.
“The guilty verdict does not bring back George Floyd,” President Joe Biden said as he addressed the nation in the wake of the verdict. “But through the family’s pain, they are finding purpose to George’s legacy will not be just about his death, but about what we must do in his memory.”
Police have killed 319 people in 2021 so far, according to Mapping Police Violence. Many of these officers will never see the inside of a courtroom or hear a judge’s gavel. But members of over-policed communities — especially Black communities, since Black people are more than three times more likely to be shot by a police officer than white people — will continue to be forced to live with the lasting ramifications of police violence until true accountability and reform take precedence.
"The evidence in the case overwhelmingly showed that Chauvin committed this horrendous murder," James Kilgore, media fellow at Media Justice and author of Understanding Mass Incarceration, tells Refinery29. "While it is gratifying that the jury was able to see through the veil of fabrications that were put forward in Chauvin's defense, at the same time, as soon as the jury pronounced the verdict in this case, we were mourning the death of a young Black woman killed by police gunfire in Columbus, Ohio. And we are yet to bury another Black man, Daunte Wright. We cannot build enough prison and jail cells to meet these challenges. We need to dismantle the racialized systems of policing and incarceration and explore possibilities for using the billions of dollars we spend to police and cage people on building healthy, thriving communities, devoid of hatred, violence, and despair."