On May 25th, 2020, the world watched in shock and disbelief as a Black man dies at the hands of the police. Just months following the public lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, the video of George Floyd’s murder sent shockwaves that reverberated through the world, demanding that the racist underpinnings of the American criminal justice system be addressed. 11 months after Floyd’s death, his killer stands trial. The trial of Derek Chauvin is arguably the most important court case in recent history. The decision from the trial sets a precedent for future police brutality cases and indelibly marks a shift in the power of police in America.
American police are distinct from other social workers insofar as they have the legal authority to use force. As sociologist Alex Vitale notes in his book The End of Policing, police engage primarily in patrol; felony arrests are a rarity. The powers police have are greatly exaggerated and unnecessary for the work that makes up the vast majority of their job. This discussion arose during day 6 of Chauvin’s trial when the Chief of the Minneapolis Police, Medaria Arradondo, defined the degree to which police are legally allowed to use force. Arradondo stated that the use of force should stop the instant it is no longer necessary to maintain control of the situation. Arradondo’s testimony, and the majority of testimonies thus far, draw attention to the monopoly on violence which the police possess. If won, the prosecution would fundamentally alter the way police are held accountable in the United States.
Currently, policing has the benefit of qualified immunity: a doctrine which states that police can only be held liable for a crime if police have previously been found guilty for that crime-ie, police can only be charged for vandalism if police have previously been charged for vandalism in the past. This substructural aspect of the criminal justice system makes it incredibly hard for police to be charged with crimes. The Chauvin trial would establish a precedent that establishes a clear line of discernability between appropriate and excessive force.
Additionally, the trial denotes a paradigmatic shift in the way in which we view the role and function of policing in America. The highly public death of George Floyd started the fire, and the Chauvin trial poured gasoline on it. An acquittal would represent a degree of complacency-stating that police have an unlimited ability to use force and monopolize violence. The trial politicized the role of policing, but the implications of this trial span across party lines. Neither side would benefit from an acquittal, but both sides benefit from a holistic reinterpretation of policing in America. Chauvin’s trial paves the way for that reinterpretation. If convicted, Chauvin would serve time for murder in the second and third-degree as well as manslaughter in the third degree, a sentence that is unheard of in cases of police violence against Black victims. This would signal that not only can police be held accountable, but that the police can be policed.