I want to see Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis cop who knelt on George Floyd’s neck, punished. But I want—and we need—more than that.
Convicting Chauvin would be a good thing. It would also be a terrible place to stop.
Chauvin’s trial is a performance review of one individual. Those don’t happen often enough. Prosecutions of violent cops are scarce; departmental discipline is typically toothless. The fact that Chauvin is on trial at all marks a step in the right direction.
Still, Derek Chauvin wasn’t alone.
To understand George Floyd’s death, it isn’t enough to go down and in to find whose knee was on his neck. You also have to go up and out to see how and why the killer got there and acted as he did.
Someone hired Chauvin, trained him, socialized him, supervised him, evaluated him, retained him. He served with the Minneapolis Police for 19 years. They raised him. They ignored red flags. They made him a Field Training Officer. They dispatched him to the scene. Four other Minneapolis cops watched Chauvin for over nine minutes without intervening.
And many “someones” had mobilized Chauvin in the ongoing perverse effort of Us/Here to control Them/There in minority communities. They sent him on a mission conceived of by white America as the corralling of powerful, volatile Black men.
George Floyd’s death was the culmination of a cascade of decisions made by people distant in time and place from the site of the killing.
We can’t allow the desire for retribution against the last cop in the line to bury the fact that the death of George Floyd was a system failure—in fact, a societal failure.
I suppose it is possible that heightened fear of punishment might influence some future Chauvin. But that’s a frail hope—I’ve represented too many people who broke laws knowing that punishment was a possibility to put much faith in it.
Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck both because Chauvin didn’t grasp what could happen and because he didn’t much care.
Real safety lies in never deploying someone like Chauvin in the first place.
Review the Event, Not the Performer
To avoid that, we desperately need a full-context, all-stakeholders event review that peels back the layers of overlapping, sometimes conflicting, and often reinforcing conditions and influences that contributed to George Floyd’s death.
Yes, while Chauvin’s trial proceeds we all want to see environmental factors dismissed as Chauvin’s sniveling “excuses.” No one wants to offer any extenuation to the man who knelt, preening, on Floyd’s neck, with his hand casually stuffed in his pocket.
And senior Minneapolis police officials have been delighted to exploit the opportunity that the Chauvin prosecution affords to exculpate themselves, and to reassure the jury that they had rules and training in place—that a lone “bad apple,” Chauvin, violated their teachings, but that their orchard is just fine.
Still, attempting an exorcism of Chauvin along the lines of “No real Minneapolis cop would do that” quickly runs up against the fact that one of them did do it, and did it on video.
Having rules is one thing; reacting when one of your Field Training Officers murderously violates them, and four of your younger cops stand around and watch him do it, is another.
Apparently, the rules as you laid them out and the work as it is done by Minneapolis cops have diverged. How? Why? Have “workarounds,” “practical drift,” and “covert work rules” taken over?
How long has this been true? What sort of culture have you created? What makes you think this won’t happen again?
Unless we address what has been known as “the normalization of deviance” in Safety literature, since Diane Vaughan’s analysis of the Challenger launch decision, it’s almost certain that this tragedy will be repeated.
Whatever the outcome of Chauvin’s criminal trial, the same realities of police life in the Minneapolis department will be around for the next cop who comes along—and for the next Black man who encounters him.
Minneapolis is self-insured, and its taxpayers have paid $27 million to the family of George Floyd, who was the last Black man the city’s police killed. Did they pay that to bury the problems, or to shine a light on them? The taxpayers should demand that outlay be treated not only as the compensation for Floyd’s death, but also as a down payment on the chance to learn how to avoid seeing the next Black citizen killed.
If you stop after the criminal trial—no matter how draconian a prison sentence it generates—you guarantee that you will stay always one tragedy behind. You will doom yourself to rounds of “whack-a-mole” with new Chauvins. Members of the community will pay the price.
Learning and Healing After a Tragedy
A recent Tucson, Arizona inquiry into the deaths of two Latino men in police custody provides a model of the “Sentinel Event Reviews” that should be our routine practice after criminal justice harms after every officer-involved death, wrongful conviction, or other debacle.
Following the deaths of Damien Alvarado and Carlos Ingram-Lopez in separate incidents, the Tucson Police Department organized an all-stakeholders review of the two events. Because this review was distinct from—parallel to—the criminal investigations and civil suits aimed at the performance of the officers involved, it could mobilize full community participation on the review board.
The aim was prevention, not discipline.
Experts in “culture of safety” review methods from Arizona State University and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School were enlisted. Representatives from the public health, fire department emergency services, and public safety 911 center, all of which were implicated in the events took part. “Silo” walls were broken down; community representatives aggressively questioned the officials.
The Tucson Police gave the group everything: body camera footage, internal reports, and documents.
The Tucson Sentinel Event Board harvested a wealth of learning from the two events. It delivered a full and transparent document to the public. It posted, and linked to, the body camera footage. It identified dozens of system weaknesses (for example, inadequate Spanish language capability in the 911 center) and chronic conditions (for example, implicit bias and poor medical understanding of “excited delirium”). It offered 53 cogent recommendations for changes in policies and procedures.
But the Tucson process did more than that; it built a small new measure of community trust.
It shared its lessons, and it bolstered confidence that the next time something goes wrong, Tucson will learn from that event too, and integrate community representatives into the process.
The Tucson Sentinel Event review may even have begun to promote a degree of healing.
As Susan Bandes has shown, the idea that tough punishment of a criminal promotes “closure” for victims and survivors is largely a popular-culture invention with little or no basis in psychology.
In contrast, medicine’s experience with genuine “disclosure and apology” efforts after medical error tragedies indicates that survivors really do value having a role in protecting future victims from the same experiences.
A community that does a full event review doesn’t stop at “We’re sorry this happened to you” as if the actions of a Derek Chauvin had been freakish—an act of nature, like a lightning strike. It takes the indispensable step, to “We’re sorry we did this to you.”
The trial of Derek Chauvin will hold Chauvin accountable for his performance. Good. But an all-stakeholders, Sentinel Event review could provide the “forward-looking accountability” that proves that we will do everything we can to prevent a repetition.
Unless we have both versions of accountability, we won’t really have accountability at all.
James M. Doyle is a Boston defense lawyer and author, and a regular columnist for The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.