The Universal Notebook: ‘A reasonable police officer’

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Last week a jury in Minneapolis unanimously found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, a Black man suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.

The penalty for forgery is not death, but the whole world saw Chauvin kneel on the neck of the unarmed Floyd for nine minutes and 29 seconds, asphyxiating him. To have found Chauvin not guilty would have been a travesty of justice that could have triggered riots nationwide.

Defense attorney Eric Nelson tried to argue that Chauvin was “a reasonable police officer” just doing his job by the book. But no “reasonable police officer” can be allowed to get away with murder.

I suspected Chauvin would be convicted when it became apparent that the Blue Wall of Silence had crumbled and police officer after police officer testified against Chauvin’s illegal use of force. 

My question after repeatedly watching the sickening cellphone video bravely shot by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier was, “What in God’s name was this man thinking?”

Prosecutor Steven Schleicher argued that what Chauvin was thinking was that he was not going to let Floyd, who had been resisting arrest, disobey him or allow a dozen or so bystanders to make him back down. In a lot of police killings that does seem to be the case – men who just can’t stand to be disrespected.

I also asked myself, “What were the other officers on the scene thinking?” Former officers Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao will be prosecuted for failing to stop Chauvin from killing Floyd.

But Lane and Kueng were rookies and Chauvin was a veteran cop who had previously shot people in the line of duty. He had also faced 18 citizen complaints prior to killing Floyd. He should have been removed from the Minneapolis police force years ago. So I can kind of understand why the rookies might have been reluctant to stand up to Chauvin.

Thao, on the other hand, was an 11-year veteran and Chauvin’s partner. My guess is he will also be going to prison. 

I’m sure law enforcement officers all over the country were outraged by Chauvin’s actions and relieved by the verdict. Rogue cops just make the jobs of good cops that much harder. They also must be asking themselves what they would have done had they been on the scene on May 25, 2020. And if the answer is not to intervene to stop Chauvin from killing Floyd, they probably should start looking for another line of work.

Some people, of course, will defend the police no matter what, arguing that officers are called upon to make split-second life-or-death decisions that most of us never face.

But there was no life-or-death situation in this case. Floyd was not threatening anyone. And there was no split-second decision made. Chauvin spent almost 10 minutes kneeling on Floyd in broad daylight with bystanders pleading with him to stop and his fellow officers failing to find the courage to do the right thing.

If the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passes, at least chokeholds will be banned. But what police officers really need to learn is when to walk away. Backing down would have been the right thing to do in the Floyd case. Then Floyd might still be alive and Chauvin would not be spending the next few decades in prison.

Bottom line: If you can’t take an unarmed suspect into custody without killing him, you probably shouldn’t be a police officer.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.