Beware of police reforms

Some changes could make things worse

by Jay Ambrose

Protesters in Minneapolis, and, for that matter, throughout the country and across the seas, signaled through shouting, jumping, carrying signs and in some instances vandalism that a jury had darned well better find Derek Chauvin guilty in his trial for murder. It did.

But what I hope, pray and believe is that the jurors relied on what seemed to me firm evidence and strong arguments in reaching their conclusion, not out of fear of being beaten up, of enduring, unending, ruined reputations or something worse. Trials should be based on rule of law, not on popular sentiment, politics or the idea that the end justifies the means.

The outcome may have all kinds of implications, but what was at stake in the event itself was a human being entitled to basic rights, fairness and a system of justice that would otherwise be a system of injustice. In a larger view, there are also the issues of needed judicial and police reform that done the wrong way could nevertheless cost lives all over the country.

Chauvin, who is white, had startled the nation after he and several other police officers had first struggled last May with George Floyd, a Black man accused of passing counterfeit money in a store. Finally, Floyd was lying down on his stomach in the street with his hands handcuffed behind his back, dangerous in no conceivable way to anyone. Chauvin put a pressing knee on Floyd’s neck for nine and a half minutes as the man wailed 20 times, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” and people in a gathering crowd said get off him, get off him. During the last three minutes he was dead.

We live in the age of the video camera and soon enough millions were watching all of this and it was a horrid scene as Floyd stared back at the cameras with vapid eyes. The issue was a major one at a time of deep concern about racism and Black Americans being shot and killed by police many more times than white people on a per capita basis. We soon had what has been described as likely the most colossal protest in U.S. history with 15 million to 26 million people taking part in thousands of dramatic episodes, most of them thankfully peaceful.

But not all. From the beginning, police stations were set on fire. Police were injured. Stores were looted. Small businesses, many Black-owned, were burned to the ground. Bricks were thrown at police and their cars. People were killed and the cost is estimated at $1 billion.

Dreadfully, in 2020 there was a 33% increase in homicides, with the pandemic an obvious cause that was just as obviously abetted by the demonizing and demeaning of police as a whole. They became less proactive and fewer in number in some cities as they quit and were laid off. A Gallup poll showed 80% of Black Americans wanted the same number of police or more in their neighborhoods. A lot of Black residents were being killed.

The lesson in all of this is not that people should immediately assume murderous guilt in cases they cannot begin to understand. Loud-mouthed speculation does not equal trial, evidence and jury — and such speculation can damage law and order more than it helps. Nor does reform require the belief that all white cops are racists; with more encounters as one reason, Black police officers kill as many Black people as white officers do. The defunding police outcry is lessening because it makes things far worse.

It’s still the case that police need to be held far more accountable with the understanding that they are often in situations in which split-second decisions are required to save lives. Some states and localities are making changes that make sense, and the Chauvin case was an example of police leaders doing more to demand that police face consequences for indefensible actions. We have a long way to go, but while early protests helped awaken the nation to the need for change, the riots defeated much of the good.

Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at speaktojay@aol.com.