Derek Chauvin has been sentenced to 22 years. Don’t say this proves the system works

·5-min read
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin addresses his sentencing hearing and the judge as he awaits his sentence after being convicted of murder in the death of Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota (Pool via REUTERS)
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin addresses his sentencing hearing and the judge as he awaits his sentence after being convicted of murder in the death of Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota (Pool via REUTERS)

After a year of protests, advocacy, and a grueling trial, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is facing accountability for his murder of George Floyd. For the charge of second-degree murder, Judge Peter Cahill has sentenced Chauvin to 22.5 years in prison, of which he is expected to serve 15.

Before the sentencing, Judge Peter Cahill denied Chauvin’s motion for a new trial and his legal team’s efforts to evaluate alleged jury misconduct. In his sentencing, Cahill cited the four aggravating factors in Chauvin’s case that included the fact Chauvin abused his position of trust and authority and treated Floyd with “particular cruelty.” The nature of his crimes, and the substance of Chauvin’s defense, likely played a role in this sentence.

Chauvin showed little contrition, though he did aim a strange statement of “condolences” to Floyd’s family, adding that there would be “new information in the future” that he hoped would give them “peace of mind”. This eerily-worded statement fell well short of showing accountability or directly apologizing, and stung particularly badly after the statements made by Floyd’s family to the courtroom.

Floyd’s seven-year-old daughter, Gianna, delivered a video statement in which she expressed how much she missed her father. His brother, Terrence, asked Chauvin directly while fighting tears: “Why? What was going through your head when you had your knee on my brother’s neck?”

Chauvin watched these statements with a blank, rapidly blinking stare that he maintained throughout the trial. When Chauvin’s mother spoke on his behalf, she talked about how she believed in his innocence and condemned media characterizations of him. She made no mention of Goerge Floyd or the Floyd family’s suffering.

While the sentencing today is positive, some argue it’s not enough, as the prosecution pushed for 30 years. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Chauvin’s conviction is more of an anomaly than standard protocol. Would we even have this result if Darnella Frazier, that brave teenager, didn’t document the nine minutes and 29 seconds of Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck with her phone?

It’s important to remember that Derek Chauvin’s sentencing doesn’t prove that the system works; it proves how rarely it works.

There were about 1,000 documented police shootings every year, but there have been only 140 police officers arrested for murder or manslaughter charges related to on-duty shootings since 2005, according to criminal justice professor Philip Stinson, who has been tracking police arrests at the Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database. Stinson says that among those officers arrested, only 11 non-federal officers were convicted of murder.

During impact statements today, Terrence Floyd said that if the roles were reversed, it would’ve been an open and shut case, alluding to disparities in accountability between police officers and average citizens. The data backs him up. Once an officer gets convicted, they still aren’t deemed equal under the law. Police officers face lesser sentences than civilians who commit the same crimes. Stinson says that the average sentence among those officers convicted of murder is 21.7 years. That’s while the average civilian who is sentenced for murder gets a sentence of 48.8 years, according to a March 2021 DOJ report tracking prison time in 2018.

Of course, there are clear reasons why police aren’t held accountable: laws give wide justifications for the use of force; qualified immunity protects officers from personal lawsuits; pressure from police unions is strong; police-friendly prosecutors sit in courtrooms; officers themselves are given poor training, and the list goes on.

While the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act has failed to move forward in the Senate, the bipartisan police reform negotiations led by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), and Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) appear to be making progress. But we need to go beyond accountability and towards preventative reforms that revamp training practices and incorporate different services so that an armed police officer doesn’t have to be deployed to every scene. Police don’t want to have to play social worker or domestic dispute mediator. We can push reforms that reallocate resources so police can focus on violent crime. Given how far apart both parties are on the issue of policing, I find it hard to believe we’ll get something monumental out of the current congressional negotiations, but crazier things have happened. All I know is that something needs to be done.

In the 24 hours alone after Chauvin was convicted in April, there were six more police killings. We saw another Minneapolis police killing earlier this month, of Winston Smith, where no body cameras were worn. Not a single cop has been charged for killing Breonna Taylor. And in the final days of the Trump administration, the Justice Department declined to prosecute the officers who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. Today happens to be his birthday. He would’ve been 19.

To the opponents of police reform who often point to “Black-on-Black crime” as a bigger issue, to I ask: What about white-on-white crime? Crime is mostly intra-racial and happens between people who know each other. What’s at stake here is the fact that police are supposed to protect and serve us, not kill us. This is why these killings spark racial justice movements. This is why we desperately need reform.

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