When a jury last week found former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin guilty in the second-degree murder of George Floyd, the rare conviction of an officer on the job brought relief and a glint of hope that a transformative moment for policing in America was within reach.
While no one expected a shift overnight, a string of shootings by law enforcement officers nationwide — particularly the killing of Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man, in North Carolina — in the hours after the verdict was announced is viewed by some as a major setback. Civil rights leaders, activists and some law enforcement experts say the deadly violence points to a difficult realization that belies the outcome of Chauvin’s trial: People will continue to die at the hands of law enforcement, and one ex-officer’s conviction was never going to rewrite a system that many agree remains critically flawed.
“Sending Chauvin to prison doesn’t make Floyd’s family whole, it doesn’t change an individual cop from pulling the trigger, and, most importantly, it doesn’t change the system that’s broken,” said Dawn Blagrove, a lawyer who is executive director of Emancipate NC, an advocacy nonprofit that seeks to end mass incarceration in North Carolina. “It’s going to take America growing a conscience about the deplorable systemically and institutionally racist system and challenging the status quo.”
The events of the past week have crystallized broader conversations about effective and constitutional policing, particularly in communities of color, as well as about tracking and reducing agencies’ use of excessive force and what alternatives to lethal and excessive force should look like.
Brown was one of at least seven people shot by law enforcement officers across the country in varying circumstances in the 24 hours after jurors reached a verdict in Chauvin’s trial April 20. Fatal shootings occurred in San Antonio; Escondido, California; and Worcester, Massachusetts.
Other cases that have gotten wider scrutiny include the fatal shootings of Ma’Khia Bryant, a Black teenager, by police in Columbus, Ohio, during an altercation in which police said Ma’Khia had a knife and was trying to attack another person and of Isaiah Brown, a Black man in Virginia who was clutching a cordless house phone that was mistaken for a gun when he was struck multiple times, his family’s attorney said. Brown had called 911 and threatened to kill his brother, and he said he had a gun before saying later that he didn’t. Investigations continue in both cases.
“The law enforcement model is set up so that a measure of a good officer is the number of arrests and the number of lockups. Even for small traffic stops, they’re looking for a gun and drugs — those are the big scores where officers get rewarded,” said James Nolan, a professor and chair of sociology at West Virginia University, who is a former police officer in Wilmington, Delaware.
“So even the conviction of Chauvin isn’t going to change anything, because the police mindset is still in place. It’s what keeps them being hypervigilant and suspect of everyone,” he said. “That’s why cars look like weapons, cellphones look like weapons, and everything looks dangerous.”
Brown, 42, was shot Wednesday morning in Elizabeth City, a coastal community of more than 17,000 people, as officials said deputies from Pasquotank and Dare counties tried to serve a felony drug-related arrest warrant on him.
The sheriff’s office in Pasquotank County has offered few details of the encounter as the state helps to lead an investigation. The FBI field office in Charlotte said Tuesday that it is opening a federal civil rights investigation.
Earlier Tuesday, Brown’s family appealed for transparency during a news conference in which attorneys highlighted an independent autopsy that they said showed that Brown was struck five times, once in the back of the head.
The “shots to the arm, that wasn’t enough?” said Khalil Ferebee, Brown’s son, whom authorities permitted Monday to view a 20-second clip of redacted officer body-camera video. “Stuff’s got to change.”
Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten II said: “A private autopsy is just one piece of the puzzle. The independent investigation being performed by the [State Bureau of Investigation] is crucial, and the interviews, forensics and other evidence they gather will help ensure that justice is accomplished.”
On Monday, Wooten defended the decision to show Brown’s family only a short clip of the fatal encounter.
“This tragic incident was quick and over in less than 30 seconds, and body cameras are shaky and sometimes hard to decipher,” Wooten told reporters. “They only tell part of the story.”
Attorneys for the family said Brown was in his car with his hands on the steering wheel when deputies opened fire. Witnesses told The Associated Press that Brown was shot as he was trying to flee and that his car skidded and hit a tree. A bullet to the back of Brown’s head indicates that he wasn’t a threat and that his shooting amounted to “an execution,” family attorneys said.
Seven deputies were placed on administrative leave.
Unlike other states, North Carolina doesn’t automatically consider police recordings, such as bodycam video, to be public records. However, a judge could decide Wednesday morning to allow authorities to release the full bodycam video.
Montré Freeman, the city manager of Elizabeth City, said Tuesday on MSNBC that he was “completely flabbergasted” that all of the video wasn’t shown to the family.
“You know, when you have bodycam, the most transparent thing to do is to show all of it, and unfortunately, that did not happen,” he said.
With about 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, each operating in a patchwork of differing use-of-force policies and training methods, it’s necessary to understand whether a shooting is the result of an officer’s choosing to disregard proper protocol or of an agency’s poor and ineffective practices, said Janice Iwama, an assistant professor of justice, law and criminology at American University in Washington, D.C.
She said it’s imperative that all agencies collect data about use of force to make it clear whether and where they’re failing so improvements can be made to prevent people from needlessly being harmed. Only about 5,000 of all federal, state, local and tribal agencies in the U.S. or 41 percent, submitted use-of-force data to the FBI for 2019, the bureau said.
“When we’re thinking about if policies are working, we have to start going back to them and the data to see if they’re leading to discriminatory policing and if they are actually reducing crime as intended,” Iwama said.
Activists say they’re troubled by the recent shootings by officers and the pattern the incidents appear to fit into. From 2015 to last May, Black people and other people of color were disproportionately shot by police and killed at a rate “significantly higher” than whites, according to data analyzed by Yale University researchers.
Amara Enyia, a community organizer in Chicago who is policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of racial advocacy groups, said that while funneling more money into policing has been the default answer, the number of people killed by law enforcement officers hasn’t budged. Nearly 1,000 people are killed annually by law enforcement in America.
Instead, Enyia supports the movement to “defund the police.” The concept — to reduce communities’ reliance on law enforcement officers and redirect government spending toward social services and programs, such as those for mental health, education and housing — gained traction in the wake of racial justice protests following the death of Floyd. Many cities that have toyed with the idea, however, haven’t decreased law enforcement budgets over the past year.
While Chauvin’s trial showed that police officers can willingly come forward to speak out against colleagues accused of wrongdoing, the larger system still has “enduring flaws,” Enyia said.
“The current policy of so-called reform has led us to this moment: that even in the midst of a guilty verdict being read, someone else is being shot and killed by a police officer,” she said.
Sweeping national reform could be on the horizon. President Joe Biden is expected to make racial justice and policing a focal point in his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night.
Biden is pressing Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, crafted in response to the death of Floyd, a Black man, after Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than 9 minutes while detaining him last May. The bill would end certain police techniques, including chokeholds and carotid holds, and improve training and investments in community programs. The Democratic-led House approved the legislation last month; Senate Republicans have offered alternative proposals for a reform bill.
Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, said he supports the Democratic-led reforms, which he said must include implementing a federal registry of police misconduct, making body cameras mandatory and ending “qualified immunity,” which protects law enforcement officers from most civil lawsuits.
“Police are here to protect and serve,” Johnson said, “not divide and kill.”