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An exception to the rule or a new chapter? What Chauvin verdict means for criminal justice reform

a group of people gather in detroit, one holding a black and white Black Lives Matter sign
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

Now that a jury in Minnesota has convicted Derek Chauvin on three counts for the murder of George Floyd, the United States has entered a new chapter in its national conversation about police and use of force. But how different will this chapter be from what’s come before — and how much might change within the country’s criminal justice system and the violence it disproportionately enacts against Black Americans?

Tracey Brame, the associate dean for Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School, says that while this wasn’t the first time the nation saw an image or video of Black death at the hands of police, the circumstances of Chauvin’s case raised the stakes in the country’s conversation about police brutality.

“It was not just a video or a visualization of the violence — it was nine and a half excruciating minutes, where you could not only see what was happening to George Floyd, you could hear the pleas from the bystanders, you could hear pleas from Mr. Floyd himself, all of which weren’t heeded by the officers involved,” Brame said. “I think that really shocked the conscience, certainly of the people who witnessed it, and of many in the country as well, and certainly many even in law enforcement.”

Jennifer Cobbina, associate professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, says that the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement have also played a significant role in amplifying conversations about inequities within the criminal justice system throughout the country.

“The movement has become the largest civil rights movement in U.S. history,” Cobbina said. “It has brought people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds together — gender, age, and even location, such that the protests we saw take place not only in urban areas, but suburban and rural areas.”

Still, Cobbina, who wrote Hands Up, Don't Shoot: Why the Protests in Ferguson and Baltimore Matter, and How They Changed America, says activists and protesters are continuing to push for criminal justice reform in the U.S. Police officers continue to use excessive force against Black people and other people of color in the United States — including against a Black teenage girl in Ohio, who police shot and killed the same day that Chauvin was convicted.

“The relief and the celebration that you're seeing many people have [in the aftermath of Chauvin’s conviction] is really tied to the absence of injustice, because, you know, history has shown that history has not always been on the side of people of color trying to get justice in this country,” Cobbina said.

Holding police officers accountable

Brame says that one of the reasons Chauvin’s case was unusual was that his fellow officers were willing to testify against him.

“We hear about the ‘blue wall,’ right? We hear about the reluctance of officers to testify against one another, to how investigations can be so closed and insular when officers are accused of misconduct,” Brame said. “You heard very, very powerful testimony from within the department and without, just about how this wasn't policing. And that's not always the case.”

But, Cobbina adds, Chauvin’s case is so far an exception to the rule when it comes to punishment for police officer misconduct. She says other cases may not involve video evidence that was as overwhelming as Chauvin’s case did.

“So, you know, we have seen a great deal of demand for, for example, ending qualified immunity, which is the legislation that prevents legitimate civil lawsuits from being heard when an officer violates constitutional rights,” Cobbina said. “Because of qualified immunity and strong police unions, it's often very difficult to hold police officers accountable. It's the reason why there has been such a push, for instance, from many activists to defund the police, in terms of reallocating resources away from the police and investing in marginalized communities.”

What could criminal justice system reform look like?

Brame says she thinks reform of the criminal justice system and nuanced conversations about defunding the police likely need to start at the local level, based on communities’ varying needs.

“How can we better serve communities? How can we talk about what the relationship between the police and community should be in a way that protects but also serves, which — both of those things seem to be sometimes in short supply. They seem to be an intimidating presence, more than a protecting or service presence,” Brame said.

Cobbina says communities need to create systems of care and justice rather than systems of oppression and harm, adding that it’s important to address root causes of crime and mentalities behind policing.

“Where else can we also consider addressing harm that takes place that is not just focused on law enforcement and not just expecting law enforcement to address all of societal problems? Because we do tend to look to the police to solve issues, for example, of abuse and abandonment, unemployment, homelessness, school disruption, domestic abuse,” Cobbina said. “But I think it is important to think about — and there are some organizations that have already attempted to figure out — ways to address harm and conflict within their communities without always relying on law enforcement.”

For more, listen to the full conversation above.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

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