For many, the Derek Chauvin trial became a litmus test for whether there was any justice available for Black victims of police brutality. An open-and-shut case to some, but for those who have endured the trauma of police abuse or witnessed it firsthand, Derek Chauvin walking away a free man was a foreseeable possibility.
Too many unarmed and nonthreatening Black people have been killed by police, with impunity. Between the time George Floyd died and Chauvin’s conviction, 181 Black people were killed at the hands of police. Just minutes before a judge read Chauvin's murder verdict, 16-year-old Ma’khia Bryant was killed by police.
And the families of many Black victims often have to endure their loved one being portrayed as a drug user or criminal as if that would somehow justify a police officer killing them.
To be clear, unarmed, nonthreatening white people also get killed by police. Ask the family of Daniel Shaver, a white man, if there is a need for police reform. In a 2016 incident at an Arizona hotel, after ordering Shaver to lie prone on the floor, with Shaver visibly following every instruction, former police officer Philip Brailsford shot him in cold blood, on video. Upon being found not guilty, the officer received a pension from Mesa Police Department claiming he had been traumatized by killing Shaver.
Pro-police reform requires police accountability. Any law enforcement officer, if they are honest, will tell you that some officers should not be allowed to remain on the force. Holding bad officers accountable for their actions engenders trust from the communities that good cops serve. It makes good officers safer. It builds bridges between communities and law enforcement that mitigate the fear that discourages trust of police, and creates relationships that may begin to foster an understanding between police and the communities they serve.
Privileges like qualified immunity, which in some cases holds that an officer cannot be held liable for violating a person’s constitutional rights, are untenable.
The level of prosecution we witnessed in the Chauvin trial is rare. Any hope that this effort will be normalized is aspirational at best, delusional at worst. Chauvin also didn't have much of a defense. Justice that requires your life to be taken in the worst possible way, by the worst possible person in order to be realized, is not justice at all; it is illusory.
"I would not call today’s verdict ‘justice,’ however, because justice implies true restoration," Minnesota State Attorney General Keith Ellison said after the Chauvin trial. "But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice." Unlike others who rushed to make claims that this case would set a new precedent, Mr. Ellison was responsible in his remarks. He dutifully characterized the conviction as accountability, knowing that true restoration demands more. It demands true justice.
True justice is blind — it knows not race, sex, creed, color, or identity. True justice is free — the poor are as entitled to it as are the rich. True justice can neither be bullied by a powerful police union, nor denied by an ambitious prosecutor.
Until, everyone is afforded true justice, systemic inequality within the criminal justice system shall remain what it is and has always been — an enemy to the inalienable liberty of the powerless and a threat to the sacrosanct freedom of the underserved.
David Wright is a retired captain at Rikers Island and a student at Touro Law Center. He lives in Shoreham.