Police Accountability: What’s Next After Chauvin’s Conviction?


Derek Chauvin’s mugshot taken at Hennepin County Jail. On April 20, 2021, he was found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. Photo obtained from Reason Magazine.

Ian Sun

On May 25, 2020, the whole world covered their mouths in shock and despair as it watched the brutal strangulation and murder of George Floyd at the knees of a police officer.

On April 20, 2021, the whole world sighed in relief as it learned the verdict for that deed: guilty as charged. Many of us sigh too, including myself. However, true, everlasting justice is a long way away.

Almost all of us have either watched the murder of George Floyd on video or have heard of the murder. 

We saw the unwavering knee; we heard the cries of “I can’t breathe;” then we joined the call for justice lest the culprit walk free. 

Our cries are hit by hail, and the culprits then post bail; we then wondered to ourselves, “would justice again fail?” 

For once, it did not fail. Derek Chauvin, the culprit of the murder of George Floyd, was found guilty. Indeed, it is something to sigh in relief over, since we finally held one police officer accountable. But why do we need to sigh, much less celebrate? Shouldn’t accountability be a given? Shouldn’t police officers, who are supposedly purveyors of justice and accountability, hold themselves to that standard, too?

 Statistics reveal the lack of accountability. Police brutality is obviously a problem in America — police kill over one thousand people every year, or 33.5 per ten million residents. Indeed, there are very few days in a year where police kill no one. Compared to other developed countries, this rate tops the charts. These countries, including Canada, Germany, and the UK, do not have a rate higher than 10 per ten million. The police forces in these countries kill no more than a hundred people per year. 

So one would imagine that we have police officers getting charged, convicted, and sentenced for unjustified killings. Instead, only two percent of police in America who killed somebody are ever charged for anything. In other words, the remaining ninety-eight percent (98%) of officers who kill somebody walk free. Though some killings are justifiable, not all of them are. Too many police officers walk free from unjustifiable killings. And in George Floyd’s case, his death was completely unwarranted. 

Still, the conviction of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd is the exception, not the rule. Had the video evidence not existed, Chauvin might as well still be on the police force.

The lack of accountability can all be traced to a two-word phrase called qualified immunity. Basically, it protects government officials, including police officers, from accountability. A case of police brutality must violate “clearly established” law, meaning that even the most egregious violations of the law cannot warrant prosecution if the exact deeds were not found as such before. There are few instances where a case replicates a previous one, which allows officers to almost always walk free. One can easily read the terminology and see just how damaging qualified immunity is to accountability. It is nearly impossible to hold the police or a government official accountable thanks to this doctrine.

Qualified immunity explains why 98% of police officers who kill somebody walk free. Even if they break the law or commit a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad act, qualified immunity provides a tall wall against accountability.

Qualified immunity does not just result in more police killings without accountability; it deepens distrust in police as a whole. Why trust an organization who claims to deliver accountability yet has none of it itself?  

The need — not for statewide, nor national, but global protests for change, the need for succinct video evidence and its virality, and the need for millions to march together is testament to just how difficult it is to hold police accountable. We finally achieved a conviction, and given its rarity, we can sigh in relief. But how do we make sure a police killing with impunity will not happen again? It’s a logical question to ask.

Remember qualified immunity? End it. Abolish it. Get rid of it. Qualified immunity is the largest roadblock to police accountability, never mind an unwilling jury. Why should we remain surprised at police killings if there’s no accountability, especially when those who perpetrate it are supposed to bring accountability? It is truly a duality: the purveyors of justice and accountability cannot seem to administer justice to themselves. Ending qualified immunity will eliminate many of the extra barriers to accountability. For once, the purveyors of accountability can deliver it to themselves when they do wrong.

So far, only one city of thousands and one state of fifty has ever ended qualified immunity: New York City and New Mexico. The rest of the country has yet to abolish it.

And why should cities and municipalities, whose funding comes from us taxpayers, pay for all the police misconduct lawsuits and settlements? Shouldn’t that rest with the individual officers themselves? Individuals on the force commit all the instances of police brutality. Still, municipalities pay billions to settle police misconduct lawsuits. The ten cities with the largest police departments once paid $1 billion over five years in legal fees. 

It is the municipality’s job to hold such officers accountable, not protect them from accountability. A police badge is neither a “get-out-of-jail-free” card nor a court cost and settlement insurance program. What other kinds of jobs provide that kind of insurance? 

By making individual police officers pay the court costs and settlements, there would be no “court cost insurance” or “settlement insurance.” This system would place the costs on the officers and prevent the offshoring of accountability. When someone does wrong, they ought to be held accountable. Police officers are no exception.

Past, minute reforms have tried and failed. Take the ubiquitous body camera — one of the “works on paper but not on practice” solutions. Despite providing video evidence of a police encounter, it is useless when no one watches its footage. And how can it improve accountability when qualified immunity is still a large hurdle? Video evidence cannot leap it. 

What about banning chokeholds? Well, in 1993, the New York Police Department banned chokeholds for its officers, yet we all know that Eric Garner died of strangulation by police in 2014. No officers were charged for it. 

Police brutality is obviously a problem in America. Not only is it lethal, but it also damages trust in the police — why trust someone who needlessly does harm to “serve and protect” you? We tried some minute reforms, and they did not work — there’s still no accountability thanks to qualified immunity and court cost insurance. By abolishing both, we can do what the minute reforms did not: increase police accountability, and therefore trust.

Calling for police accountability is the most “pro-police” thing you can do.