The Minnesota jurors who convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin last week of murder affirmed the truth we all saw in the video of George Floyd’s last moments. Floyd’s death, senseless and brutal, resulted not from lawful policing but a criminal act.
The jury’s verdict provides accountability in one appalling case of police misconduct. But so much work remains. Texas lawmakers and members of Congress need to pass laws that improve police practices, strengthen the avenues for holding bad actors accountable and prevent unfit officers from surfacing at new departments.
Floyd’s death fueled the largest protest movement in U.S. history not because it was a singular tragedy, but because it typified police abuses directed against Black people for far too long. These abuses continue, and not only in faraway communities like the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, where Daunte Wright was killed recently during a horribly botched traffic stop, and Columbus, Ohio, where an officer last week shot and killed Ma’Khia Bryant instead of de-escalating the tense situation involving the knife-wielding 16-year-old foster child. Our community remembers Michael Ramos, who was killed by an Austin police officer last year, and Javier Ambler II, who died in 2019 after Williamson County deputies repeatedly jolted him with a Taser, among others who needlessly died during encounters with police.
Many police officers are dedicated public servants, putting their own safety at risk during each shift in order to protect our community. And in some cases, force — even deadly force — is necessary for officers to protect themselves or others. But our nation has seen too many deaths that could have been avoided, too many families whose grief should have been spared.
Last week the Texas Senate passed a bill compelling police to intervene if a fellow officer is using excessive force, as well as another measure requiring police to provide or request immediate medical attention if a suspect is injured. Both measures, which await votes in the House, mark improvements. But more sweeping legislation bearing George Floyd’s name remains stalled, as lawmakers are at odds over lifting the shield of “qualified immunity” that protects police officers from lawsuits.
This is a difficult issue, but lawmakers must strive for a solution that balances the interests of officers and the public. Families deserve a better avenue for recourse when a loved one dies at the hands of police, especially because allegations of police misconduct are so rarely prosecuted in the criminal courts.
Nationally speaking, officers face criminal charges for less than 2% of the fatal police shootings each year — a figure experts say is very low, even accounting for the fact that many shootings are justified. Police officers are often reluctant to testify against a colleague, and prosecutors are often reluctant to go after an officer in a police department they largely collaborate with on other cases. Add in the reluctance by many juries to second-guess officers’ split-second decisions in the field, and only a fraction of the officers who are charged are actually convicted. Sometimes it is for lesser offenses, such as official misconduct, that do not entail jail time.
Another Texas bill — this one bearing Michael Ramos’ name — would give a state agency broader authority to revoke the licenses of law enforcement officers engaged in serious misconduct. As we’ve noted before, such a reform is badly needed to ensure unfit officers don’t remain on the force or resurface at a new department.
As it is now, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement can’t yank a license unless an officer has been convicted of a crime or received deferred adjudication; has failed to complete required training; or has been fired from two different departments. That is hardly sufficient, considering the range of misconduct that might not be criminal but would be clearly unacceptable in a sworn officer of the law.
In fact, investigative reporting by KXAN showed how nearly 450 officers since 2015 have voluntarily surrendered their law enforcement license, often as part of a plea deal in a criminal case that allows them to avoid jail time. The state’s inability to yank these licenses before a conviction leaves officers with a powerful bargaining chip that serves their interest, not that of the public.
For now, though, the Michael Ramos Act (House Bill 3654 by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and Senate Bill 1472 by Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, both of Austin) is still pending in committee.
President Joe Biden noted last week that Chauvin’s conviction came about through “a unique and extraordinary convergence of factors.” The incident happened in broad daylight, in front of witnesses. A teen recorded anguishing images of Floyd’s death with her cell phone. Some officers testified against Chauvin. And jurors weighed the evidence in this “extraordinary moment, under extraordinary pressure,” Biden said.
“For so many, it feels like it took all of that for the judicial system to deliver just basic accountability,” Biden said.
And in that sense, we cannot be satisfied. We shouldn’t have to hope for the stars to align in order for justice to be served. We must strengthen our laws to ensure justice is the order of the day.