Random Thoughts on the Murder of George Floyd
by john harrison
About 425,000 people live in Minneapolis, Mn. There are 800 sworn police officers and 300 civilians in the police department for an average of one police officer for every 531 people. This is in line with other American cities of similar size. For example there are 433,000 people living in Oakland, Ca., with 747 sworn police officers, and 323 civilians in their police department for an average of one police officer per 579 people. On the other side of the country there are 474,000 living in Raleigh, NC, with 802 sworn police officers, and 100 civilians in their police department for an average of one police officer per 591 people. So, the department is not understaffed, nor is the violent crime rate particularly high there when compared to other cities of similar size.
The mayor, a young liberal democrat, is responsible for the local police department. He and the Police Chief have been working to improve the department. They have admitted that there are specific problems within the department that they are working on. However, the budget is the real problem and partly because of that training is also a problem. This is Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s first term in office, but he seems to be trying.
A local newspaper said this about the politics of policing there last year:
“The politics of policing is delicate in Minneapolis, made more so this year after the largest police-misconduct payout in Minnesota history. While downtown groups call for more officers to curb the latest spike in street violence, others say public safety must be addressed through a more holistic approach that incorporates better funding for programs like affordable housing, drug treatment and youth-violence intervention.
“Council President Lisa Bender said on Twitter the city couldn’t afford the cost per officer, nor the “settlements for police violence” that would follow. “I’m concerned that at this point both the mayor and the chief are approaching this from a highly political lens,” she said.
“Council Member Andrew Johnson wrote a blog post questioning whether the department could be more efficient by assigning solo officers rather than pairs to most calls. Council Member Cam Gordon wrote his own critical post, reviving the idea of changing the city charter to give the council more power over the police department.
“Since his campaign, Frey has identified policing as a priority, vowing to change the culture of the department while mending discord between officers and community members.”
Ultimately, according to the article, for the politicians the question is all about the allocation of tax money, public safety needs are clearly secondary. All this played out about a year before George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer.
In the meantime, the Minneapolis Police Department has failed to fully adopt changes recommended by federal officials to weed out bad cops. At least two of the officers involved in Floyd’s fatal encounter, including the officer who knelt on his neck, had numerous complaints filed against them in the past.
Some reforms were made though. The department narrowed the circumstances in which Minneapolis officers were authorized to kill. It changed its use of force policy with a focus on the “sanctity of life.” These new rules also required other officers to intervene when a fellow cop became abusive. These changes will become very important in the future cases against the four officers that were involved in the Floyd murder. The revised use-of-force policy explains why the department was able to fire all four arresting officers in Floyd’s case within 24 hours of his death, speed that has been all too rare in previous police-brutality cases.
Another distinguishing feature of this case is the support the protestors have received from both police chiefs, and rank and file police officers from across the nation. Incredibly for some, this support has continued even after violence marred some of the protests. The support itself is a very unusual break in the blue wall. As video footage of George Floyd’s last moments circulated over the internet, many, including police officers, watched in shock and revulsion as the 46-year old black man died, pleading for air, while a white Minneapolis police officer knelt, almost casually, on his neck.
Even so few could share the horrible familiarity the clip would evoke for Valerie Castile, who four years ago watched similar footage while her son, Philando, lay dying after a police officer shot him during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb. Her son’s killing added fuel to the national conversation about how police use force against people of color. It prompted the most sincere promises from politicians and civic leaders across all of Minnesota to reform policing there, but it still did not result in enough action to save George Floyd from murder by a known rogue cop.
So why, Valerie Castile asked, must she watch another video, of another a black man, in her city, dying at the hands of the police? Why indeed?
There is no question that the Minneapolis Police Department was on notice that it had a problem officer on its hands. Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the department, had a dozen complaints from the public, none of which apparently had led to discipline. City records do not show the nature or severity of the complaints. Likewise, city coaching records aren’t public, so it’s unclear if Chauvin was sent to any of the policy training sessions as an alternative to discipline.
However, readily available past news stories show that Chauvin was involved in at least three cases in which a police officer shot a civilian during a six-year period. He was placed on paid leave in 2006 after being present, but not being the shooter, during a fatal confrontation with a man armed with a knife. In 2008, Chauvin shot a 21-year-old who was suspected of hitting a woman. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, police said the man in that incident tried to grab either Chauvin’s or his partner’s gun, prompting Chauvin to open fire. And in 2011, Chauvin was at the scene when a colleague shot a suspected gunman, who witnesses said had his hands up and was trying to surrender.
Tou Thao, another of the officers involved in Floyd’s murder, has had at least six complaints filed against him. Five resulted in no discipline and one is still under investigation. And in 2017, the city paid a $25,000 settlement to Lamar Ferguson, who said Thao knocked out his teeth during an arrest. The department still allows officers to use choke holds barred in other cities.
So, the reputation of the Minneapolis’ police department was clearly in question long before Floyd’s death. In July 2017, Officer Mohamed Noor fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a yoga teacher from Australia who had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault near her home. Officer Noor, a Somali-American, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for shooting Damond, a white woman. The city of Minneapolis paid $20 million dollars to Damond’s family. Because Officer Noor did not record his encounter with Damond on his body camera, the police department changed at least one policy. It now requires police to activate their body cameras while traveling to a call.
In all the leaders of Minneapolis were repeatedly warned about problems with the police department. They knew they were in trouble. Even State Attorney General Keith Ellison said he is well aware the state has long-standing policing challenges. “The reforms thus far have been halting, inadequate, and just put it on the shelf until we get to the next tragedy,” he said. “Without tragedies to keep propelling it, it gets ignored after a while.”
It was ignored after Castile died. It was ignored after Damond was killed. Will it be ignored again after Floyd’s murder?
Why are the other three officers not yet charged?
The entry of the FBI into the case vastly complicates it. Neither the FBI nor the State can speak for the other As a practical matter what this means is that plea negotiations with the other three officers are infinitely complicated, but both sets of prosecutors want at least one of the officers to flip. Having an officer who was there testify that the actions of the other officers were wrong is very powerful stuff for a jury and in effect allows the jury to find the police defendants guilty. Even so no defense attorney will agree to a deal which does not include the signatures of both federal and state prosecutors. That is never easy to get.
On the other hand federal laws have strict time limitations between charging and trial. There are always jurisdiction issues in such joint cases. For example, a state trial would probably draw from jury pool with far more people of color. This may or may not be an advantage for either side. A federal charge may draw a longer sentence than a supportable state charge, or vice versa. Invariably though, a rush to charge almost always leads to problems later on.
So, wait for it. It will come.
What about the riots?
It seems that white people usually riot when over-paid sports teams, many predominantly composed of people of color, either win or fail to win championships. People of color riot lately when one of them is killed by the police for an otherwise minor infraction, often times in direct violation of police rules and regulations.
On the whole, the people of color have the better reason here.
The lock down frustration is part of the problem.
Some people are short of food for their families, some people could not buy summer clothes for their growing children. Some people, even if they have jobs, cannot go to work because the schools are closed, the play grounds are closed, their children are home and they cannot see an end to it.
If you look at the pictures of the riots, not everybody looting a store is a person of color, not everybody yelling at the police is either. Some of the politicians, both Democrat and Republican remind me of “Bull” Connor of Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s complaining of “outside agitators” taking advantage of the situation as though this is some sort of defense. It’s not. If your city blows up in flame, you failed.
Moreover, like the prior discussions about how to fix the police, it is still only another question of politics for far too many politicians, and the actual public safety be damned.
Lots of police have courageously crossed the line and stepped up to say that what happened to George Floyd is simply unacceptable on any level. It is time that the politicians followed their lead.
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