The world has its eyes glued on the trial of Derek Chauvin, where even the chief and other officers on his force have testified that he absolutely acted against the force’s training and protocols when he used a chokehold on George Floyd for nearly nine minutes. But many people watching the proceedings have been questioning why it seems to take such an egregious use of force for a police officer to be tried for murder or even battery no matter how badly they injure a suspect who is not resisting arrest. The truth is that there are many reasons for this problem, but its possible things may soon change for the better.
Graham v. Connor
As The Nation points out, a large portion of Derek Chauvin’s defense strategy is based on the idea that if police feel they are justified in killing someone, they have that right. That’s because under the unanimous 1989 Supreme Court ruling Graham v. Connor, the court ruled that rather than basing a police’s use of force on what a typical reasonable person would do in a given situation, instead, a police officer’s actions could only be based on what a reasonable “officer on the scene” would do.
At the time, even the liberal justices would thought this would be an improvement over the existing standard because a trained and experienced officer would, in theory at least, be less likely to use force than a typical civilian. But perhaps because police have been put in so many dangerous situations as a result of their duties or perhaps because of inherent racial biases, police often seem prone to using violence to defend themselves even when the suspect has no weapon. This is part of the reason officers involved in shooting so often claim they feared for their life and believe the suspect was armed -even if he was actually only holding a cell phone or even a candy bar.
Unfortunately, the more often these defenses are used, the more likely it is that a “reasonable officer on the scene” would use force, meaning it becomes more and more justifiable for police to use force.
In fact, many state laws specifically permit police to use force as long as they actually, in good faith, perceive there was a necessary reason to do so. In fact, in California, police were previously allowed to use deadly force when they deemed it “reasonable” in the moment. This changed in 2019, when the requirement was changed to make the use of deadly force only acceptable when necessary to prevent serious injury or death and there was no other reasonable alternative -meaning they have to make some effort to deescalate the situation. Even so though, the law is still based on the standard of a “reasonable officer,” not a civilian.
Police Investigations and Prosecutor Bias and Jury Bias
It’s not just a matter of the law protecting officers. Police often also work to protect other officers, which is why crimes committed by the police (particularly those involving domestic violence accusations) are often not fully investigated. This is why among other reforms made after the Black Lives Matter Protests over the summer involved the addition of an independent, civilian-oversight committee with the power to investigate police wrongdoing.
But even when these matters are fully and fairly investigated, prosecutors are often wary of filing cases against the police. While this is sometimes because the prosecutors work closely with the police in order to get sufficient evidence to file charges against wrongdoers, it is also because they know that juries are often hesitant to convict the police. In fact, at least one member of any given jury is likely to be sympathetic to police because they have a family member or close friend who is on the force.
Things Could Change Rapidly
The George Floyd case has proven to be a turning point when it comes to America’s awareness and concern regarding police use of force cases. The immediate aftermath led to many protests and reform measures around not just the country, but the world as a whole. Things may continue changing as a result of the trial. In fact, it is unheard of for so many fellow officers and even the police chief testifying against Derek Chauvin.
Jury trials are unpredictable and it’s possible at least one juror will be influenced by the defense’s argument that Chauvin believed there was even the most remote possibility that Floyd was a threat to his safety and was therefore justified in his actions. But if public sentiment is any guide, he will be found guilty. When this happens, it’s entirely possible the case will be appealed. This could end up leading to a new appeals court or Supreme Court ruling that scales back the rights of officers to use deadly force. And if Chauvin is found innocent, it’s also likely that public outrage will result in state or even federal legislators passing more laws to reign in the use of police force.
Ultimately, this means that whether it is determined through the courts or the legislature, more reforms are likely on the way. But even aside from the law, this trial could cause a dramatic shift in how frequently police are prosecuted if he is found guilty. After all, if prosecutors often avoid bringing up charges against police, in part, because they believe the juries will acquit the officers of the charges, then they may file more charges if public sentiment starts to be less biased in favor of the police.
Remember, justice should be blind, whether the defendant is an officer or not. The best way to help secure a fair trial is to work with a skilled defense lawyer like Peter M. Liss who can help remind the jury of their duty to operate without bias. If you have been accused of a crime, please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.