by Claire Gosselin
Derek Chauvin’s conviction on April 20th on all 3 counts in the murder of George Perry Floyd in Minneapolis last May is seen by many as a step toward accountability, though commentaries note distinct features of the Chauvin case. There is the impactful video of the cold-blooded murder by knee, the gathering crowd’s appeals to Chauvin and the other officers, and the fact that it was not murder by firearm. Police murders with guns are more common than by other means and are much more difficult to prosecute due to a doctrine set forth by the US Supreme Court in 1989: “judges and juries should not second-guess officers’ split-second decisions, no matter how unnecessary a killing may appear in hindsight” (NYT 4/26/2021). The movement to challenge police murders is pushing to change this doctrine.
Other unique features in the Chauvin trial were several testimonies for the prosecution by law enforcement personnel, including the Minneapolis Police Chief among other former and current police leaders. Reform advocates were cautioned that Chauvin’s case was unusual and not likely to set a precedent for conviction for other police murders. The prosecution itself made a point of stating that it is not policing that was on trial — it was the murder by this police officer.
Many activists see the case differently and believe Chauvin’s trial should provide an opening to challenge the institution of policing.
Roots of enhanced police power
As the Chauvin verdict and other murders recede from the headlines in major media, we cannot let them lapse from our consciousness. The history of police power and significant immunity from oversight and prosecution is entangled in the deeply racist nature of the capitalist system in the US — a system with roots in early slave patrols and later crushing of workers’ organizing for better wages and working conditions. From its beginnings, the system has employed tactics that protect the few and reinforce inequality through social control focused on specific populations of color, poverty, and working class origins.
In an eye-opening New York Times piece published late December 2020, reporters’ research revealed that in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, police across the nation organized to increase their power and minimize discipline for their abuses. During this period, these police forces, overwhelmingly white, were used to suppress activists, often with great brutality.
For example, Detroit, along with over 150 other American cities, experienced unrest in the summer of 1967. The city’s black residents viewed the police force as an occupying army. A raid on an unlicensed bar led to riots by predominantly black residents against police backed up by federal troops. The riots provided fodder for the relatively new police union, the Detroit Police Officers Association (DPOA), as it negotiated the first comprehensive police contract in the nation (public employee unions were legally approved in 1962). Appealing to white voters afraid of crime, the union contract promised to restore order, provided that the union members gained protections in return. Distressed by the 1966 Miranda decision, which required police to inform individuals in custody of their rights before interrogation, police pushed for their own “bill of rights.” The DPOA was successful in 1967 in achieving a huge pay increase and a change to disciplinary procedures, with the ultimate decision assigned to an independent arbitrator.
Detroit’s history of being union-friendly, paired with whites’ fear of crime, created the perfect environment for their success — one that would be a model shared across the country. The police unions reached beyond the usual pro-union folks for support: At the 1967 national convention of the Fraternal Order of Police, featured guest George Wallace stated that “if the police of this country could run it for about two years, then it would be safe to walk in the streets” (NYT 12/23/2020). Further limits to accountability, strengthening of immunity, and procedures for shielding misconduct were added to contracts over the years. These police union gains exceeded those of all other types of public unions.
Reimaging Public Safety
This moment poses both a challenge and an opportunity for the movements to Defund the Police, invest in community needs, and re-imagine public safety. Key organizations and activists anchored in the most policed and affected communities are the ones most capable of setting the path. These include Black Lives Matter and related BIPOC groups, carceral system abolitionist organizations, and others seeking radical reform. Though these groups carry the weight of this charge, and allies at the grassroots and elected leaders must join in the work at all levels.
Legislation at the federal level includes the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House on March 3. Provisions of the bill include bans on chokeholds, carotid holds, and no-knock warrants at the federal level. At the state and local level, the federal government would match police funding to departments barring those practices. It seeks to weaken qualified immunity and to make it easier to prosecute police. However, the bill stalled in the Senate. A group of 8 legislators from the House and Senate met on April 29 to discuss options, and President Joe Biden urged Congress to pass a police reform bill by May 25, the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.
In Massachusetts, Boston and other cities have been under scrutiny for abuses and lack of accountability. Activists are advocating for a range of changes, from Defund / Invest in Community Needs to specific limits on use of force. In Boston, some in the Defund and reform movements are focused on challenging the budget allocation for the Police Dept. The City Council will debate police budget allocations in May, but has limited say on the budget. However, on April 28, passed by a vote of 7 to 5, the Council was able to place limits on police during protests, “restricting police in their use of chemical agents such as tear gas and projectiles like sponge rounds to control crowds” (Boston Globe, 4/29/2021). Kim Janey, who replaced Mayor Marty Walsh on March 24, following his confirmation as US Labor Secretary, has advocated for changes, with modest actions to date. The mayoral race, which Janey has joined, will provide an opening to debate policing and will likely expose the fissures along race and class lines.
Other potentially positive changes are on the horizon. Rachel Rollins, Suffolk County DA has put forth radical proposals to treat misdemeanors in a more constructive manner. Independent studies support her recommendations. However, she is a top contender to be the next US Attorney for Massachusetts. If chosen, her replacement will be selected by Governor Baker. This could disrupt her initiative for reform of the criminal justice system in Suffolk County.
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, another important advocate for changes in policing in Boston, shared his reflections on policing with the Boston Globe: “When I think about reimagining policing, I think about public safety. It’s redefining what public safety means, that’s the goal. More police doesn’t do that, the current method of policing hasn’t done that. Policing doesn’t solve the ills that cause crimes.” (Boston Globe, 4/26/2021)
–Claire Gosselin is Co-Chair of the Mass. Peace Action Racial Justice & Decolonization Working Group
Articles cited & Link for information on alternatives :
The Way Cities Lost Oversight Of Their Police. New York Times, December 23, 2020, by Kim Barker. Michael H. Keller, and Steve Eder.
Police Shielded By 1989 Ruling On Using Force: Deference Is Given To Split-Second Actions. New York Times, April 26, 2021, by David D. Kirkpatrick.
Council limits police during protests: Use of tear gas, projectiles cut. Boston Globe, April 29, 2021, by Danny McDonald.
In reimagined police force, much would be changed. Boston Globe, April 26, 2021, by Milton J. Valencia
https://defundthepolice.org/alternatives-to-police-services/ — note the menu at the left of the page for more recommendations, research, and resources