The verdict on all three counts, guilty. Does it say that the jury in one trial found one defendant’s guilt was proven beyond a reasonable doubt, or does it reflect a shift in public perception of cops, of law enforcement, that enough is enough? Both? Something else? Interpreting the meaning of things like guilty verdicts beyond their inherent parameters is a game for fools and knaves, usually found on cable news, but one thing is clear: the jury convicted and it has validated the beliefs of a great many Americans that police are prejudiced, callous and too violent.
Put aside the legalities at issue in the conviction, most of which will ultimately prove insignificant. Don’t read anything more into the verdict than the jury found the facts. Legal issues on appeal aside, defendants are presumed innocent unless and until a jury find the defendant guilty. That has now happened. You accept the wins and losses alike. This is our system and that was the jury’s verdict.
More than a decade ago, when few believed, no less accepted, the premise that there were too many bad cops, violent cops, racist cops, and asked what could be done, one thing kept coming up, over and over. The culture within policing must change, and that change had to come from within.
Some cops saw this and understood. Many tried to push their fellow officers to see the problems and deal with them. From 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement to Seth Stoughten, cops have tried to tell their fellow cops that their culture has to change. Another ex-cop, Peter Moskos, has explained why cops are the way they are, what their perspective of reality on the streets looks like. The problem isn’t so much that Moskos is wrong about how cops perceive their job relative to reality, but whether that’s good enough anymore. Or whether it was good enough ever?
No one will be surprised that our relationship to police and law tends to be a pendulum, swinging too far one way, then too far the other. We went from acceptance of police being carelessly callous and violent, openly racist, to now having cries to abolish police taken as a serious idea. The president called for the law named after a dead guy, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, ironically written in part by Kamala Harris, to be enacted. The law includes some decent reforms and some that will likely not play out the way its proponents believe they will.
Just as there was gross overkill in the past when crime was a top national concern, and politicians of all races on all sides fought to out-tough the other side and shower our brave and courageous crime fighters with love and money, and it didn’t work, so too will these new changes disappoint us. We are constantly trying to tweak the system in response to one problem while pretending there aren’t other problems that will arise. The proposed law would eliminate no-knock warrants because of what happened to Breonna Taylor among others. No-knock warrants are, in general, a bad thing, not because there isn’t a legitimate use for them, but because cops have handled them horribly, carelessly and abusively.
This emits the odor of the mechanic blaming the tools for the ugly system of policing we’ve built. The problem is that we can more easily control the tools available than the skills of the mechanic, or in this case, the attitude of the police not to be needlessly overbearing, violent, callous and offensive to their fellow citizens.
What will strike most cops hardest about the verdict is that they watched the same video as us non-cops and saw the same conduct that they’ve used many times, the only difference being that their knee holding someone down didn’t result in death.* Few will admit this, but they know that there, but for the grace of whatever deity they pray to, go they, and that can’t be right. They can explain ten different ways why they did it, and how nothing bad came of it. But they now see that one cop who did what they’ve done a hundred times was just convicted of murder for it.
There are two potential reactions on the part of police. The first, and most obvious, is to insist that the conviction is wrong, and fight it. Some will see this as a reason to retire, that they’re no longer appreciated and won’t put themselves and their families at risk for doing what they believe to be “the job.” Some will, as a cop told me yesterday, slow down, take their foot off the gas pedal and not be there to do the dirty work of policing. If you don’t want them to be cops, they won’t be. Let the public get what they want and find out what it means to live without police cleaning up the mess society creates.
The other reaction is to realize that too many cops lost their humanity along the way. They forgot that the people they deal with are human beings, just like them, and not just mutts and skels. And, it needs saying, that black people aren’t all criminals to be treated like worthless scum.
A phrase was used during the Chauvin trial, “awful but lawful.” This phrase refers to police conduct that looks horrible to the public but remains within the bounds of the law. The law gives the police enormous latitude to do their job, recognizing, perhaps too far, that the vicissitudes of police interactions aren’t easily constrained by rules that will never be sufficient to cover every possibility. But the phrase offers a more important message. Stop being awful when it’s not truly necessary. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Just because it might not be criminal doesn’t mean you’re entitled to behave like animals toward your fellow citizens.
And mostly, just because someone is black doesn’t mean you get to treat them like dirt, like some lesser form of humanity unworthy of the normal human courtesy you want for yourself.
This isn’t all cops. This isn’t all the time. But if cops don’t want the swinging pendulum to take them out, the lesson here is that cops have it within their power, as they always have, to be better. If they choose not to be, there’s a good chance following this moment in time that society is not going to let things continue the way they have. You could have prevented this from happening if only you saw this coming a decade ago. You could have been a skilled mechanic, wielding your tools with discretion, respectful of your fellow citizens and doing as little harm to others as possible. You failed. It’s now here, and what comes of the Floyd Effect is up to you.
*Maybe I’ve watched too many videos of police interactions, but as bad as the Floyd video may have been, it wasn’t remotely the worst. It was reckless and callous, but so many are outright malicious, deliberate brutality against people for absolutely no reason. Having seen so much worse than the Floyd video, the fact that this one resulted in a conviction speaks volumes about how public perception of policing has shifted.