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Chauvin Trial, Verdict Should Boost CNY Police Reform Efforts on Use-of-Force, Accountability

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Chris Bolt/WAER News
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Just how significant was the guilty verdict against former police officer Derek Chauvin for his role in killing George Floyd?  Now that initial reactions have taken place, several police policy experts weigh in on changes that might come from the case in police accountability and reform.

There was much more on trial in the Minnesota Courtroom than just one man – a former police officer -  killing another by his direct actions.  Legal experts and those involved in police reform can see broader changes coming from the Derek Chauvin trial and verdict.  Hamilton College Professor of Government Frank Anechiarico can see the verdict impacting police conduct and accountability on a broad scale.

“If Derek Chauvin had understood he’d be called to account not just by the criminal justice system, but by his own department, that this was something that would not be tolerated, I think those kinds of incentives, which work on the rest of us. If you know that you’ll be called to account for your behavior, you behave differently. And that’s not been the case in most departments.”

But even before this case, there’s been some change.  Anechiarico led a research project in Herkimer and Oneida County with his students looking at best practices in police departments, some of which have been adopted by Utica and other police departments.  He can also see strengthening of laws and practices for police not directly engaged with a victim.

“(It’s) the duty to intervene, which some jurisdictions have focused on.  Other officers standing around seeing this sort of thing happening should understand they’ll be liable if they don’t do something about it.  Officers should not be bystanders when something as egregiously (as Floyd killing happens).  This is a very bad idea, that they have to be able to do something about that.”

Syracuse University Law Professor Paula Johnson agrees.  This case can serve to shine more light on policies regarding  those who did not commit the direct act.

“It is also about the persons who stand by and don’t take any actions to make sure that that person stops or that the person that’s at the bottom of someone’s knee is able to get the assistance they need.  They are also equally, in some cases if not more so, responsible because they didn’t intervene when they could have made a difference between life and death.” 

And there’s a more subtle change Johnson can see coming out of this trial.  She finds it significant that other officers testified against Chauvin … when that’s rarely the norm.

“…even in a case where the evidence of wrongdoing is so overwhelming.  And so, this code of silence and protecting others, I think, may finally be breaking in the sense that other officers now will feel more responsibility to make sure that everyone uphold the standards that they are supposed to observe in their profession.”

That change also caught the eye of Syracuse Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens, who found it particularly significant.

“I never remember any situation where officers have testified in a court of law against their own fellow officers, right up to the Chief of Police, and stood by the standard that they had set for themselves, and did not waiver on that.  That was huge to me.”

Owens is one of the point persons on police reform in the city.  She believes all the attention on the trial will have impacts.

“It gave me and gave others a little more hope that as a country we are looking at policing thoroughly.  And again remember, the case we just witnessed really took on the entire law enforcement community, policing activities right through to local DA’s and the state Attorney General’s office. Every aspect of that process invoked some sort of reform.”

Owens is forming an oversight committee now to ensure police reform efforts stay on track … and to monitor state or federal laws the city will comply with.  If nothing else, Hamilton College’s Anechariaco says the case presents communities with a critical question.

“What policies and practices are in place here to avoid something like the death of George Floyd happening in our community?  What are we doing to make sure that doesn’t happen here?  I think that’s what should come out of this, the tragedy of this man’s death.  The verdict is really just the beginning.”

And SU Law’s Johnson finds a different kind of significance.

“It is a pivotal, historical moment for this society as it relates to police-community relations and policing, how police are to discharge their duties, especially as it relates to Black folks, brown folks, where they exert their power as opposed to their judgement in the need to carry out their duties.”

Should police practices enact these kinds of changes and reforms, the impact of the case will outlast even the troubling images and emotions of the trial and the verdict. 

Correction: The original version of this story did not list Derek Chauvin as a former police officer. The story has since been corrected.