Police trials as benchmarks for racial justice

The verdict in the trial of a police officer for George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis must be seen against the progress made in states since that tragic yet galvanizing moment.

A bumper sticker on a Baltimore police cruiser hints at reforms made since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.

For many Americans the trial of the white police officer implicated in the death of a Black man named George Floyd in Minneapolis last May is the most important test of racial justice in a generation. Officer Derek Chauvin faces charges of second-degree murder, second-degree manslaughter, and possibly third-degree murder.

The trial carries heavy expectations. It comes at a time when Americans are increasingly aware that race can influence police tactics. A series of fatal encounters between police officers and Black men over the past decade, captured on cellphones and spread by social media, has exposed the disproportionate burden of excessive force borne too long by African Americans.

A desire for punishment in such cases is understandable. By proportion of population, Black people are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white people. Few officers have faced consequences in killings that were not justified as defensive. Video footage of the fatal encounter for Mr. Floyd shows Mr. Chauvin kneeling on his back and neck for more than eight minutes – well beyond the point when other officers nearby were able to detect the restrained man’s pulse. The incident sparked protests that swept across the country and throughout the world last summer.

While the trial is essential, measuring racial justice in the United States on the basis of one verdict and a long sentence risks disappointment. To convict Mr. Chauvin, prosecutors will need to prove he knowingly and intentionally acted in a manner forbidden by law. At the time of the incident, the methods of restraint used by Mr. Chauvin and his fellow officers were standard and approved practice in Minneapolis.

Perhaps more importantly, equating punishment with justice obscures the extent to which public thought has shifted on racial injustice since last summer. To be sure, a Gallup Poll released Friday found that 64% of Black Americans saw Mr. Floyd’s death as murder. Only 28% of white respondents agreed. Yet when questions of racial injustice are separated from the immediate legal issues of the trial, polls show Americans share more common ground. A range of surveys since Mr. Floyd’s death have confirmed that majorities of Black and white Americans support banning dangerous police tactics and support reforms that make police more accountable to the communities they serve. Polls compiled by the New York-based organization Public Agenda found last summer that nearly 60% of Americans agree that racial bias against African Americans among police and law enforcement is a “serious problem” in their community.

That public consensus is fueling a dramatic shift in government policy. Lawmakers in 15 states – red and blue – and the District of Columbia have introduced more than 330 bills this year addressing police reforms, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That follows a frenzy of activity last year following Mr. Floyd’s death: more than 700 bills in 36 state legislatures. Nearly 100 were enacted. At the federal level, the U.S. House sent a bill last week to the Senate that would ban life-threatening restraint tactics and make police more accountable for their actions on patrol.

Steps toward racial justice may be small or come in waves, but they must never be ignored during a time of crisis. “We’re talking about systemic racism in the context of policing but haven’t been able to eradicate that from our broader society in 400 years,” says Charles Ramsey, a retired Philadelphia police commissioner. “So it’s not practical to think we’re going to be able to eliminate it from policing overnight. That doesn’t mean there aren’t steps that can be taken to really minimize the opportunity for people to engage in that kind of behavior.”

The trial in Minneapolis provides another venue to build a common understanding of racial justice. Regardless of how the trial unfolds, the American conversation about race has already shifted toward a better understanding of equality, one not based on skin color or neighborhood but on a core principle that all people have a shared nature and an individual dignity worth preserving.

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