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Both laws and attitudes on policing need to change


Fans of horror movies know there are always early scenes that tip you off to the terrible things that will come later.

I had that feeling last week as I watched the press conference held by prosecutors in Minnesota. I assumed that it was called to announce an arrest in the murder of George Floyd. I was wrong.

They opened by announcing that there was nothing to announce. That was bad. Then they started talking and made things worse.

“There is other evidence that doesn’t support a criminal charge,” County Attorney Mike Freeman said.

And my heart sank. Here we go again. They’re going to try to defend even this.

We’ve seen this movie before. Call it Friday the 13th, Part 709. That’s for the 709 black people killed by police in the United States since the start of 2017, according to the website Statista.

It’s always the same. The officer feared for his life. He had to make a split-second decision. The last thing that went through his mind before using deadly force was his wife and children, and making sure he got back to them alive at the end of the shift.

That’s an incredibly powerful argument, especially when applied on those of us who have never walked in their shoes. But how are they going to explain away this one?

Three officers are kneeling on Floyd while he is handcuffed and face-down on the pavement. A fourth officer stands guard. Two are kneeling on his body. The third, Derek Chauvan, kneels on his neck for more than eight minutes until he dies. The officer ignores the man’s pleas that he can’t breathe. In the end, Floyd calls out for his deceased mother as he feels the life ebbing from his body. He then goes limp. Chauvan keeps his knee on the neck for nearly three minutes longer.

Was he still afraid then?

This wasn’t one bad apple. It was four officers working in coordination to execute what looked to be an oft-used technique.

The county attorney filed charges the day after the press conference, but they were too little (third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for Chauvan only) and too late. Still, he boasted that it was the fastest they have ever been able to charge a police officer with a crime. It usually takes months, he said.

That’s the problem. Our desire for law and order has led us to pass laws that protect police officers who commit acts of even lethal brutality. I have no doubt that attorneys for Chauvan will mount a vigorous defense based on the laws of Minnesota, where neck restraint is allowed. And, I won’t be surprised if his trial results in either a hung jury or acquittal.

We used to think this would end with body cameras and cellphone videos. These officers knew they were being videoed, and it didn’t give them a moment’s pause.

When the press conference was over, I knew what was coming next. If this wasn’t over the line, then there is no line. And if there is no line, there’s anarchy: stupid, senseless, destructive anarchy.

And not just in Minnesota. Anger and frustration regarding decades of racist and brutal policing erupted across the nation.

Police need better pay and training, with a focus on community policing. But that’s not enough. This isn’t going to end until we change both laws and attitudes and start treating police officers like violent criminals every time they commit violent crimes.

Walt Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.