We need to be able to make distinctions between murder, mistakes and the appropriate use of force, or we’ll never find justice.
When I first saw the video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for what turned out to be nine minutes and twenty-one seconds I was appalled and outraged. It seemed to me like an obvious case of police brutality.
But we have a system that amounts to a lot more than vigilante justice. So there was an investigation, charges were filed, Chauvin was accorded a competent defense before a fair judge and an honest prosecutor. A jury of his peers convicted him of three counts of murder. When all was said and done, as the prosecution said in their closing arguments, we could believe our eyes. It really was murder. Chauvin was convicted and he’ll soon be sentenced. The system worked. Justice is being done.
Let’s let that same system work in two other cases that have arisen during Chauvin’s trial.
In a Minneapolis suburb, Officer Kim Potter shot and killed Daunte Wright, who was resisting arrest and fleeing police during a traffic stop. Potter’s body worn camera shows that she mistook her gun for her taser and shot Wright accidentally.
A few days later, in Columbus, Ohio, Officer Nicholas Reardon shot and killed Ma’ Khia Bryant as she wielded a knife, pinning a potential victim against a car. Just based on the video evidence, this looks like a cop using deadly force to stop a life-threatening violent incident. As columnist Leonard Pitts has written, “Sorry, but this is not an open-and-shut case. This is not Tamir Rice, Philando Castile or Walter Scott, unarmed and clearly executed on camera by police. No, the bodycam video of Tuesday’s killing of a 16-year-old Black girl named Ma’Khia Bryant tells a more complicated story.”
In both cases we need to wait for investigations before we rush to judgement. But just as millions of Americans, including me, formed an initial response when Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, we can’t help but form initial opinions in the other two cases.
For me, based on the video evidence available so far, it looks like Kim Potter made an awful, tragic mistake. She has been charged with second degree manslaughter, which seems appropriate, though it does strike me that prosecutors should have waited for a thorough investigation to be completed before moving forward.
No charges have been filed yet against Reardon. Again, just based on the video evidence, it looked to me like he acted appropriately, but we’ll see.
What’s absolutely clear is that the only thing that the three cases have in common is that a white officer killed a Black person. I do, in fact, believe there is systemic racism in policing, but that doesn’t excuse us from looking at the circumstances of individual cases. Derek Chauvin killed a man who was crying out for help and who had already clearly been brought under control. Kim Potter, who had a 26-year record of exemplary service, seems to have made an appalling mistake under pressure. And Nicholas Reardon may well have simply acted consistent with his training in an effort to stop a violent crime.
What activists don’t realize is that, by equating what happened to George Floyd with the other two cases, they’re hurting their own cause. Millions of fair-minded Americans, who thought that the Chauvin verdict was just, are now pointing at their television screens and saying something like, “But she had a knife and was attacking another woman.” or “But she clearly made a horrible mistake,”
Look folks, we just can’t go on like this. The Department of Justice reports that every year there are some two million cases where police officers feel compelled to draw their weapons. We need to be able to distinguish between inappropriate and appropriate uses of force. Without discernment, we’ll never find justice.