Opinion: Chauvin trial results in exception, not standard of police accountability

I initially praised the conviction of Derek Chauvin, who was declared guilty of all three charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter by the 12 jury members in the trial of the murder of George Floyd. But I  shouldn’t have had to applaud and be astounded by a criminal, at last, being brought to justice, or the system ‘finally getting it right,’ in a land with liberty and justice for all. What was such a long-awaited, anxiety-provoking trial had such a cut-and-dried prosecution case that it should have left Americans with no doubt Chauvin would be convicted—after all, there was video footage of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 30 seconds. 

As empowering as the victory initially felt, it was sadly only an exception to the historic lack of police accountability in America. There’s a deeper fundamental issue within our waning criminal justice system that allows police officers to get away with crimes such as sexual misconduct, assault, and murder.

On March 18, 2018, Stephon Clark was shot to death by police officers in his grandmother’s backyard while holding what the officers thought was a crowbar—but was only his cellphone. Clark’s phone records and computer history of his domestic abuse charges and suicidal ideations were revealed to the jury as if to justify the death of an unarmed Black man. Neither officers knew about Clark’s record when they answered the call; nor did either of them face any criminal charges.

On February 4, 1999, officers Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon, and Kenneth Boss were patrolling the streets of New York City searching for a serial rapist. The officers mistook Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old Black college student, as the perpetrator. 

Diallo was stopped outside his apartment and asked to show his hands. Instead, he allegedly ran towards his apartment and pulled out a black wallet. The four officers fired a total of 41 shots, 19 of which hit Diallo and killed him at the scene. 

The white policemen pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. Their attorneys argued that Diallo forced the officers to shoot when he failed to comply with the officers. According to witnesses, the officers used unnecessary force and continued to shoot at Diallo even as he collapsed. All four officers were acquitted of all charges.

Despite irrefutable evidence in cases like Diallo’s and Clark’s, cops continue to evade criminal convictions. As reported by The Washington Post, 1,021 people were killed by police officers last year.  How can officers who are so blatantly guilty walk free? It’s easy to cite the corruption of the justice system as the reason for a lack of accountability, but where this complex system of oppression stems from is not as easy to pinpoint. Qualified immunity, for example, was established in the Civil Rights Act of 1871 to allow people to take legal action against public officials who violated their constitutional rights. However, this practice has evolved quite a bit since then making it almost unidentifiable from its original purpose.

Modern-day qualified immunity was established in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark case Harlow v. Fitzgerald (1982). According to Cornell Law School, qualified immunity is a form of legal immunity that protects government officials from lawsuits unless they “violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

This means that the one condition that gives officers the grounds to bypass civil suits is if there is no law or ruling by the Supreme Court or other federal appellate courts against the officer’s violation. This added condition is a shield for officers from charges of misconduct because it’s extremely difficult to find past precedent that is completely analogous to a plaintiff’s case.

 In criminal trials, the police aren’t just protected by laws but also by elected officials and police unions. Today, city officials must negotiate with police unions about their officers’ pay, benefits and working conditions. Also known as collective bargaining, these contracts negotiated by unions effectively grant officers immunity from disciplinary action. According to National Affairs, one of the many job protections included in labor contracts allow officers’ records of past misconduct or accusations of wrongdoing to be completely expunged from their records.

Our American democracy is reliant on the fact that nobody is above the law, including police officers, which makes practices such as qualified immunity unconstitutional. Even though as civil servants, officers have the authority to enforce laws that should not disqualify them from abiding by them. 

Additionally, according to a study of 656 police union contracts conducted by Stephen Rushin, “the vast majority of these departments give police officers the ability to appeal disciplinary sanctions through multiple levels of appellate review,” Rushin said. “At the end of this process, the majority of departments allow officers to appeal disciplinary sanctions to an arbitrator selected, in part, by the local police union or the aggrieved officer.” 

This protection allows officers even at a lower level, within their own departments, to elude consequences for their actions and greatly dictate the decisions of their superiors. Police unions have created unreformed police units that act with impunity by finding loopholes in the system, expunging wrongdoing and defying countless laws. 

Today, police officers have tremendous authority in government and politics. Their ability to prevent police reform derives from their donations to political campaigns. An investigation by the Guardian found that police unions in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago spent a combined $87 million in the last 10 years on political donations to elected officials’ campaigns and lobbying during election cycles. Also, with the power of their endorsements, they are able to easily influence elected officials who depend on police unions because their support or the lack thereof is sometimes enough to swing an election. 

Rather than channeling money into improved, more comprehensive training programs, they instead funnel money into the pockets of politicians who have no shame in taking millions of dollars at the “small price” of becoming a puppet to the police. 

Amongst officers, the “blue wall of silence” is an unspoken code of conduct that encourages police officers to remain silent against fellow officers’ misconduct. It causes officers to stray from their motto to protect and serve the people, and instead protect and serve themselves. In spite of these countless injustices and inequalities, there is hope for change; police officers, including the police chief in Minneapolis, broke the blue wall of silence at Chauvin’s trial by testifying against him. If the outcome of the George Floyd case is in any way indicative of the future of our justice system, then I remain hopeful.

It’s the tiniest fracture in the formidable, corrupt, American criminal justice system, but it proves the wall is not impenetrable. Identifying the crudely constructed parts, where these injustices stem, is the only way we can begin to demolish the corruption that runs rampant and rebuild America on a just foundation from the ground up.