What does the conviction of Derek Chauvin mean for police reform in the US?
Last month former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty by a 12-member jury of second-and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter for the killing of George Floyd whose death sparked global riots against racial injustice and police brutality.
He is due to be sentenced within weeks and faces up to 75 years in jail.
Activists and advocates for “Black Lives Matter” have called the verdict a pivotal moment for criminal justice reform in the US because it sets new standards for police accountability -- something that Australia should take note of.
What the statistics say
According to the US Mapping Police Violence project, between 2013 — 2020 fewer than two percent of police killings resulted in criminal charges being filed against the officer involved and conviction rates were low.
In Australia the figures paint a picture that is even more bleak: despite 432 Indigenous deaths in custody since 1991, no one has ever been convicted.
Moving forward with police reform
Days after Derek Chauvin was found guilty, the Department of Justice announced an investigation into the Minneapolis police department and its practices and also the Louisville, Kentucky metro police department as a result of last year’s shooting of Breonna Taylor, another police killing that led to widespread outcry.
US President Biden welcomed the verdict in the Derek Chauvin case, describing it as “an important step for reform.” He has been calling on legislators to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which was set in motion last year and has stalled in the senate, but aims to implement reform measures ranging from a federal ban on chokeholds to changes in police training.
Further charges over George Floyd’s death
Since the verdict, other charges have since been laid against the officers involved.
All four have been charged with willfully depriving Mr Floyd of liberty without due process — for their alleged deliberate indifference to Mr Floyd’s medical needs.
Derek Chauvin has been charged with violating Floyd's right to be free from unreasonable seizure and unreasonable force by a police officer when he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for
nine and a half minutes ignoring his more than two dozen pleas for breath.
Mr Thao and Mr Kueng are also charged with violating Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure. It is alleged they did not intervene to stop Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd's neck, and all four officers have been charged over their failure to provide Floyd with medical care.
Prosecutors allege that Mr Kueng and Mr Lane also helped restrain Floyd. It’s alleged that Mr Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back and Lane held down Floyd’s legs, while Mr Thao held back bystanders and kept them from intervening during the nine-and-a-half-minute restraint.
Legal experts in the US explain that to bring federal charges in deaths involving police, prosecutors must believe that an officer willfully deprived someone of their constitutional rights and there is a high legal standard — an ‘accident’ or ‘poor judgement’ are not sufficient to bring federal charges.
But there is now a very clear message being sent to police officers who behave as though they are above the law, and it may even be possible, in time, to say George Floyd’s death was not in vain.
Of course, eradicating racial injustice brutality in the justice system will take a much more sustained effort than what is currently occurring, but setting new standards for policing along with harsh penalties for police misconduct is a solid start. It will be interesting to see whether or not these measures have an impact here in Australia, where there is also a strong social appetite for change.
PLEASE NOTE: The material in this blog post is for informational use only and should not be construed as legal advice. For answers to your questions regarding this or other topics, please contact a professional legal representative.