Will the Chauvin Conviction Stop the Police Killing of Blacks?
I write this on the day of the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. There is widespread celebration that justice was done. I agree that justice was done. But I am not celebrating quite as wholeheartedly as other people I know. I do not have a lot of confidence that this is going to lead to any kind of new era of policing that will be more gentle, more humanistic or less racist. I think the murder of black civilians will go on and on and on and on. The Black Lives Matter movement has been active since 2013. We have had eight years of popular protest and agitation over the random killing of black civilians by armed policemen.
Some progress has been made. The wearing of bodycams is now nearly universal. In earlier eras, it was easier for policemen to shoot innocent suspects and then plant them with evidence to justify the killings. Thankfully, that kind of frame-up violence is now reduced if not eliminated.
But this does not mean black civilians are safer. The Washington Post has tabulated the number of police shootings of black civilians in the United States on an annual basis from 2015 to the present day. These statistics are not encouraging.
Despite the activities of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the protests that have occurred all over the United States, the number of police shootings of blacks has remained virtually unchanged. The number of police killings has consistently been a little over 990 a year since 2015 with no sign of downward movement. If anything, in 2020, the last year for which we have complete data, the number of killings rose to 1021. 2021 might represent a less violent year. Present rates if extrapolated would lead to 909 killings a year – still a lot but a significant reduction. But remember – summer hasn’t happened yet. I suspect police killings go up in the summer when more people are out on the streets – and everyone – including the police – is substantially more irritable.
Why has there been so little progress in bringing down the rates of police killings?
On the positive side, public opinion has turned against police violence. The Washington Post has published survey data showing that public disapproval of police violence has risen between 2014 and 2020. Typically, conservative responses to individual incidents of police violence are to treat them as isolated unique cases and not part of a larger issue of racialized policing. In 2014, a majority of the American population (57%) viewed police violence as individual situations rather than as a general problem. In 2020, a substantial majority of the American population (69%) now thinks there is a systemic problem with policing. While Democrats are more likely to disapprove of police behavior than Republicans, increasingly Republicans are getting on board with reforms to curb police violence. In 2014, only 19% of Republicans thought that police violence was a general problem. In 2020, 47% of Republicans think that police violence is a general problem. This is a huge shift for a six year period.
But even strong public opinion does not always result in changes in the activities of well-insulated government bureaucracy. Peter Stearns in his superlative book on the effect of public outrage on social change argues that public opinion can be very fickle. At any given moment, the world may be shocked and appalled by Issue X. However, perpetrators can often wait these issues out by waiting for the public to become involved with something else. When the public focus of attention moves, the pressure to act on the original issue declines.
In the case of police violence against blacks, many of those struggles were done against the background of the controversies surrounding the Trump administration. As the election got nearer and nearer, the public became more and more concerned about getting Trump out of office (or keeping him in office for those members of the public on the other side). This moved police violence down the list of issues that authorities had to deal with.
A significant factor in the current mobilization against police violence is that there is no other issue currently occupying as prominent a position in the public eye. This provides the movement with enormous leverage in the first half of 2021. How long will this issue remain as the dominant issue in public debates?
Social movements defend against the fickleness of public opinion by organizing the public and maintaining constant pressure on political officials. They either make their key issue an electoral issue or mobilize protests and demonstrations among their supporters. The Black Lives Matter movement has been remarkably strong about doing this. However, single social movements versus established authorities are not always a clear fast win for the single social movement. The anti-slavery movement in Britain got its start in the 1780’s. It took 25 years to get the international slave trade abolished (1807). It took 50 years to get slavery banned in British possessions (1833). It took over ninety years to actually ban forced labor in Great Britain itself (the Repeal of the Master and Servant Act in 1875 which allowed employers to jail workers who would not work for them). The Civil Rights Movement took an equally long time to come to fruition. The Black Lives Matter people may have to fight for a while.
It doesn’t help that for the anti-police violence movement to work, there needs to be homicide charges pressed against murderous cops and murderous cops need to be convicted in court. Just losing one’s job is a pretty small penalty for taking a human life – especially in a world where other security forces can hire you back. Latin American paramilitaries, private security companies and criminal gangs hire lots of rogue ex-policemen. In the U.S., it would just be other police forces and private security companies who would be doing the hiring. Effective sanctions have to involve prison – and those prison sentences need to be long. That means getting criminal convictions.
Courts are among the hardest to change of all social institutions. Many judges are appointed for life. Judges who have to run for election are nevertheless fairly secure. It is rare that an contest for judge is the top-of-the-line race in a national or local election. Judge elections occur at the same time as national or gubernatorial elections. The public is paying attention to the race at the top-of-the-ballot and is generally party-voting all of the lower positions. Judge is a lower position. Elections where judges get voted out of office because of public unhappiness with their conduct on the bench do occur. But they are very, very rare.
So judges are tenured and do not have to bow to public opinion on police violence cases. Many of them take pride in “judicial independence”; they do their best to ignore moral or “political” issues – focusing on technical questions in the reading of the law.
Juries are not much better. To be sure, they are drawn from the public. As public opinion turns against police violence, there will be more and more jurors in the venire that will be personally opposed to police violence. However, defense lawyers have gotten very skilled at selecting jurors who are more likely to vote to acquit. In the Rodney King case, a key legal maneuver that led to the acquittal of the police officers was having the trial moved to a suburban location where the jury could be selected from a pool of conservative whites. Nowadays, there is practically a science that allows a lawyer to predict the likely vote of a potential juror. All a lawyer needs is ONE juror out of twelve who insists on supporting the police officer, and the prosecution will lose its case.
I hope Black Lives Matter wins. I hope the shooting stops. I am glad Derek Chauvin was convicted.
But I am not going to get euphoric over one case.
Sociologists look at the numbers.
When the number of police shootings of blacks goes down, that’s when I start to get happy.
For More Information
The Washington Post database on police shootings can be found at https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/
The Washington Post data on public opposition to police shooting was reported on June 9, 2020 in the story “Power Up: There Has Been a Dramatic Shift of Public Opinion About Police Treatment of Black Americans.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/powerup/2020/06/09/powerup-there-s-been-a-dramatic-shift-in-public-opinion-over-police-treatment-of-black-americans/5edef042602ff12947e87b23/
For an amazing treatment of how public opinion does or does not produce positive social change, see Peter Stearns. Global Outrage: The Origin and Impact of World Opinion From the 1780’s to the 21st Century. (One World, 2005)