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What Derek Chauvin's guilty verdict means for the future of policing

Derek Chauvin
Posted at 9:25 AM, Apr 24, 2021

When Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all three counts in George Floyd's death, Floyd's family in Houston sobbed and embraced each other with tight hugs. The family's attorney called the case a "turning point" for police accountability and Floyd's brother, Terrence, said, "It's a great day to be a Floyd."

Criminal justice advocates have used Floyd's case — and the countless others killed by police — as proof that cases of excessive force will continue to happen without direct and explicit reform.

While some saw Chauvin's guilty verdict — a rare murder conviction for a police officer in an on-duty incident — as a victory, others said his conviction did not represent justice.

CBS News spoke with nine activists and legal experts on the impact of Chauvin's conviction and how his guilty verdict will — and won't — change policing in America.

It could galvanize the movement to "defund the police."

Floyd's death and the subsequent handling of other high-profile cases of fatal police shootings have skyrocketed the topic of reform to an issue of national importance, said Dr. Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives. With Chauvin's verdict, she believes this moment of "relief" and "sadness" will act as a flashpoint for protestors and advocates to push for the most "radical" versions of police reform: defunding.

"(Activists) do not want the usual rhetoric that comes around in these sorts of incidents for police training or additional investments of police. That's simply not satisfactory," said Enyia.

"Quite frankly, it's not what this particular moment demands. There's an opportunity to finally push beyond the sort of conversations that we've always had to start actively engaging in the process of what it looks like to build systems that actually have the values and the self-determination that Black people and other people who have been abused and killed by this system deserve."

The verdict could drive both state and federal policy.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed in the House last month, uses Floyd's legacy as a case to make specific changes to key police policies, including banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, ending qualified immunity for officers, and making it easier for police to be held accountable for abuses.

"The Senate will continue to work — that work as we strive that George Floyd's tragic death will not be in vain," Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday. "We will not rest until the Senate passes strong legislation to end the systemic bias in law enforcement."

Robert Rooks, CEO of Reform Alliance, acknowledged the impact reform bills have had on the justice system but said the country needs to see a larger overhaul of the country's parole and probation systems.

"We have movement in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and I call upon lawmakers to pass this legislation. As importantly, there is a national conversation about how we must have an ecosystem of reform to make lasting and sustainable change," said Rooks.

"There are 4.5 million people in the parole and probation system today and every four minutes one is returned to prison on a non-criminal technicality. Reform of probation and parole is a major part of the holistic approach to public safety, well-being and stability."

The verdict may give prosecutors a sense of confidence when bringing future cases against police.

Laurie O. Robinson, a professor at George Mason University and former assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice in the U.S. Department of Justice, said that normally, prosecutors worry that cases against police officers are "very hard to win."

Robinson believes the verdict could give prosecutors more confidence during cases against police officers and would, "lessen the worry factor for prosecutors who'll say, 'If cases are presented well, you can convince juries to convict.'"

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said he wasn't sure the jury would find Chauvin guilty until the verdict was read."I was never convinced we were going to win this case until we heard the verdict of guilty," Ellison told "60 Minutes."

"I remember what happened in the Rodney King case… And I remember how devastated I felt when I heard that the jury acquitted those officers."

Deborah Ramirez, a law professor at the Northeastern University, said prosecutors tend to lose similar cases. She said the conviction rate for use of force by a police officer killing an unarmed civilian is only 35%.

Chauvin's trial could pave the way for police to testify against fellow officers in future cases.

Minneapolis police leaders — including the department's police chief and its longest-serving officer — testified on behalf of the prosecution during Chauvin's trial. Laurie O. Robinson said it was "extraordinarily rare" for department leadership to testify against a longtime officer, showing that police were not "circling the wagons" to support Chauvin.

"I do think that it has said something of a precedent for leadership in policing to be more forthcoming," Robinson said. She added that in addition to leadership being willing to condemn officers who act inappropriately, it will be equally, if not more important, for officers on the street to be willing to intervene when they see inappropriate uses of force.

But others describe the cooperation of Minneapolis police as a distancing from Chauvin's actions, rather than a fundamental effort at reform. During closing arguments, prosecutor Steven Schleicher said, "This is not a prosecution of the police. It is a prosecution of the defendant. And there's nothing worse for good police than a bad police."

Alexis Hoag, a former civil rights lawyer and lecturer at Columbia Law said, "I'm of the mind that the Minneapolis Police Department, and really the state of Minnesota, offered Derek Chauvin up as a sacrificial lamb to assuage the demands of the public."

She said it would be incorrect to characterize Chauvin as an exception or as one bad apple and her overarching concern is that those opposed to reform would now point to Chauvin's conviction, and say, "Ah, we have convicted, and will incarcerate this one person," and no further action is required.

Hoag said, "As they told us, the police are not on trial. This is a pro-police prosecution, and so it would be naive, then for the rest of us to assume that this single conviction is going to reform anything."

Community advocacy could take a larger role in public safety.

"We're calling for something completely different and that means we invest in those who are qualified, who are trained to respond to, for example, a mental health crisis," said Haynes. "Without the pressure of activists who also have the vision to reimagine public safety, we won't get any movement from local officials."

Haynes said Chauvin's trial pushed racial justice into the national spotlight but he is not convinced that reform bills will prevent police from killing Black people.

"We're not settling for police reform because they are those of us who really doubt if you can reform a system that produces a Derek Chauvin," added Haynes. "We can't get George Floyd back. But what we can do is set policies in place and create a new climate when it comes to public safety that will preclude a George Floyd ever happening again."

Chanda Smith Baker, the Minneapolis Foundation's chief impact officer and senior vice president, said police reform is not possible without the continued help of community members and advocates.

"Community activism and advocacy is necessary to create the types of changes that we need to see in policing in our communities," said Baker. "The people who've created the current system aren't equipped to invent the future of policing. The future of public safety and policing must embed reforms that emerge from communities that have experienced the most harm."

Without further reform, the conviction itself will not lead to greater police accountability.

Hoag, the Columbia Law lecturer, said police reform "will not come from a single conviction of a single, former police officer."

She said the verdict was only delivered after a historic racial justice protest, and the demonstrations, not the trial, were responsible for shifting public opinion on these issues. "The underlying conditions that led to George Floyd's murder remain unchanged and Black people are no safer when they encounter law enforcement officials," Hoag said.

Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, echoed this. "It's not the verdict that creates change — it was change that created this verdict," said Robinson. "I think the legacy of this trial is the proof that movements can work, community organizing and nonviolent action can work. So we have to learn from that and commit today to taking this movement to the next level."

Ramirez, the Northeastern professor, said that the prosecution of police officers is "reactive," and won't prevent similar problems in the future.

"We still have problems, structural problems, and those remain, even after this case," Ramirez said. "I do not think that we can continue to rely on a reactive criminal justice system and a reactive civil settlement system."

Some are concerned that Chauvin's conviction could stall policy progress.

While Haynes and other community activists are hopeful for reform, they are also wary that Chauvin's guilty verdict could lull people into becoming complacent, and potentially waste the nation's current momentum.

"I'm guarded in my response to that because of the fact it took so much," said Haynes. "It's an indictment on our policing system and criminal justice system that it took this amount of energy to get this done. And if we don't connect the dots and result in real sustainable transformation, then we've basically wasted a moment that has brought the nation, even the world, together."

Even as reform bills are introduced in state and national legislature, Robinson said police unions and Republican lawmakers are pushing back against potential progress, which could end sweeping policy reform before it even starts. He also pointed to a landmark policing bill in Illinois, which was stripped of large measures to limit the power of police unions and qualified immunity.

"We are already seeing backlash on this verdict from police unions, the right-wing media, and conservative lawmakers. In major cities across America, we've seen statehouses weigh many kinds of police reform legislation, however, many continue to, unfortunately, fall short," said Robinson. "If state legislatures and governors want to get serious about reform, they must end the power of police unions to dictate what reform looks like."

Fewer people want to work as police officers. Some experts hope the trial verdict will change who joins.

Some advocates say focusing on changing the culture within police departments could spur reform in a more foundational way than legislation.

"One thing happening right now that people are describing as a problem — but I see as an opportunity — is police departments are down in numbers," said Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. "But that's a chance to reshape departments and hire new kinds of people with a greater diversity in background."

A recent report from the Police Executive Research Forum describes what it calls a "workforce crisis" as recruitment and retention efforts steadily decline. It said 63% of agencies in the study said applicants for police officer positions had decreased over a five-year period.

Advocates say focusing on bringing in new officers would not only provide the chance for individual departments to implement a new culture, but also a clean slate for training techniques.

However, changing the ingrained culture of most departments won't happen overnight - or with newly installed officers. Osler suggested that hiring chiefs committed to change would provide a top-down approach to reforming and normalizing new attitudes in a field that values hierarchy.

Changes could also come following heightened scrutiny by oversight bodies. The Department of Justice recently announced a probe into the conduct of the Minneapolis Police Department following the Chauvin trial, which seeks to address "potentially systemic policing issues" in the city.

"The reforms need to be local if they're going to matter," Osler added. "I think that legislation is good, but I think unfortunately that discussion is masking what I think is the bigger opportunity, which is to remake departments as you bring the staffing levels up."