The accountability provided by the conviction of Derek Chauvin is both necessary and insufficient. Necessary because public systems worthy of trust can never take root without accountability. Insufficient because no trial outcome can repair the devastation that George Floyd’s killing visited upon his family, the Minneapolis community, and everyone forced to grieve yet another loss in an era defined by it.
In the end, murder trials cannot deliver justice. The only possible justice comes from what we choose to do next.
A long line of efforts, from the 1968 Kerner Commission to 2015 Task Force on 21st Century Policing, have offered recommendations for making policing less racist and deadly. Some, when implemented, have reduced harm. None have prevented, in the words of Floyd’s brother, Philonise, “a list [of names] that won’t stop growing.”
Much of public safety is maddeningly complex. This much is not: The more situations we inject the possibility of deadly force into, the more dead bodies we end up with. If the presence of armed officers is a constant in tragic outcomes, that should prompt us to ask: Where can we do without them?
Local activists, officials, and community leaders are asking those questions and coming up with new answers. They are successfully challenging the assumption, ingrained among many whose circumstances have insulated them from state-sponsored violence, that an armed officer makes any situation safer.
Before George Floyd’s murder sparked the largest protest movement in America in decades, most law enforcement leaders and communities already agreed on one central point: Police are doing too much. Chiefs will tell you that maybe 20 percent of their department’s time is spent on investigating crimes and arresting suspects—what most people consider core police functions. The rest is spent responding to incidents that stem from issues like homelessness, substance abuse, mental health, or even mundane arguments between neighbors.
Badges and guns are used, mostly, for problems they’re ill-suited to solving. Traffic enforcement may be the most glaring example. Vehicle stops are frequently cited as the routine law enforcement function most likely to escalate into violence. According to a recent Stanford Law Review article, however, officers instigate that violence more frequently than motorists do.
Just last week in Brooklyn Center, MN, Daunte Wright was fatally shot as he attempted to drive away from officers who had pulled him over for having expired tags. Officer Kim Potter, a 26-year police veteran, claims that she meant to fire her taser. For the sake of argument, we can take her claim at face value. If the danger introduced by Potter’s presence was so great that a split-second mistake could result in a fatality—despite her quarter century of experience—then it surely dwarfed any danger posed by the unarmed Mr. Wright’s vehicle registration. His driving away could have been handled with a court summons in the mail. Instead, it ended with a bullet in the chest.
That stop and others stemming from minor traffic infractions, which present no obvious safety issue but offer a pretext for racial profiling, simply should not be made by armed officers. Daunte Wright, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, and Sam DuBose were all Black men stopped on technicalities; all were killed despite posing no objective threat.
The mere presence of an officer with a deadly weapon can make everyone less safe—including the officer. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly one percent of all traffic stops result in physical force. Police pull over more than 19 million drivers every year, and violent interactions remain spottily recorded. Conservatively, that creates the potential for deadly force during more than 190,000 stops each year.
Cities such as Berkeley, CA—in consultation with the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), which I co-founded with Dr. Tracie Keesee—have done the math and decided to remove armed police from low-level traffic enforcement, shifting the responsibility to unarmed civilians. In March, the City of Baltimore announced that it would continue its pandemic-era policy of declining to prosecute low-level traffic offenses altogether. Based on the data, this is one of the most obvious steps we can take to reduce racial disparities and violence in policing.
Armed officers’ status as default first responders also compounds the danger posed by mental health crises. In March 2020, Daniel Prude asphyxiated after being hooded and handcuffed by police in Rochester, NY. The tragedy brought attention to a national trend: A Washington Post analysis found that since the beginning of 2015, 1431, or 23 percent, of people killed by police had confirmed signs of mental illness.
Community-driven efforts such as Long Island’s People’s Plan—developed with guidance from CPE—aim to break this trend by giving 911 operators a tailored response to mental health crises. In the Bay Area, San Francisco is “removing cops from behavioral crisis calls.” Oakland is launching a pilot program to replace armed police with civilian specialists.
So far, Denver’s effort has yielded the most measurable results. In June 2020, the city began allowing 911 operators to dispatch a Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) consisting of a mental health clinician and a paramedic. Over the first six months, these teams responded to 748 calls without a single use of force or call for armed assistance. Many of these calls were rooted in substance abuse and homelessness—situations armed police are routinely called to respond to across the country.
The unavoidable truth is that armed police respond to these situations because we ask them to, through collective policy choices over decades and 911 calls. We systematically disinvest from or fail to imagine more equitable systems to address community problems, particularly in Black neighborhoods, and use policing to fill the gaps. In many communities that has made armed officers the only public safety tool available, weaponizing the response not only to nonviolent offenses but routine civil complaints.
Research shows that escalations of force by police are more likely whenever someone who is not White is involved, even after controlling for crime rates. Every 911 call prompted by a Black or Brown person sleeping in their car, attending a pool party, selling loose cigarettes, or even birdwatching could turn deadly. A school disciplinary issue could lead to lifelong trauma. By disarming our public safety response to nonviolent situations, we could disarm the prejudices of our communities.
I will be the first to admit: We do not know exactly what reimagined responses to nonviolent situations will look like. A plan recently adopted by the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County, NY, may provide the most comprehensive example. The city and county government will replace their traditional police department with a civilian-led, majority unarmed Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety, which will remove armed officers from nonviolent situations.
As approaches like Ithaca’s are implemented, they should be carefully measured, revisited when they fail, and scaled when they succeed. But we cannot let fear of uncertainty outweigh what we know. The data are clear, for instance, that introducing guns into just about any nonviolent situation creates risk greater than whatever danger they are introduced to prevent. Yet in most jurisdictions, an emergency call for someone threatening to take their own life will still yield a first responder who carries an instrument of death.
Only the inertia of the status quo could possibly blind us to the absurdity.
During Derek Chauvin’s trial, the defense attempted to deflect blame by claiming that George Floyd’s death was a coincidence—Chauvin’s knee just happened to be crushing his neck when he stopped breathing. “You are not required,” the lead prosecutor reminded the jury in response, “to accept nonsense.”
We are required to accept neither the status quo of armed police as our only public safety tool nor the list of names that won’t stop growing. Developing the right responses will require determined imagination. We have never done it right before in our nation’s history. But until today, no White officer in Minnesota had ever been held accountable for killing a Black person. Which means breaking from history is possible—and in this case, welcome.