After the Chauvin Trial, America Must Think About Justice

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The killing of George Floyd marked a turning point in America’s history of racial justice and injustice. It lent new urgency to questions too long ignored, and drew national and global attention to the issue. To be sure, the guilty verdicts in the trial of Derek Chauvin offer only so much by way of closure — Chauvin seems bound to appeal, the other officers involved await their own trials, and this killing, however egregious, was hardly unique. Nonetheless, the outcome of Chauvin’s trial is a moment for sober reflection.

An enormous challenge confronting U.S. policy makers is to recognize and address the failings of the U.S. criminal-justice system without crippling the ability of the police to do their vital work. It should be emphasized that this work is especially important in protecting the lives and livelihoods of Black Americans, who suffer disproportionately from many kinds of crime. This is why “defunding” the police cannot possibly be the answer. But better policing, including efforts to make officers’ tasks less dangerous for all concerned, is essential.

One of Chauvin’s prosecutors impressed a crucial point on the jury. The trial was not about convicting the police; it was about convicting one man who’d violated the standards demanded of any reasonable officer. This underlines that better policing requires, among other things, better systems for screening out poor recruits and promptly removing the small minority of officers who cannot be trusted with their responsibility, and who might be capable of criminal assault, or of one day becoming another Derek Chauvin.

This in turn requires police unions to stop and think. Their job, like that of all unions, is to defend their members’ interests. Rightly so. But their reflexive obstruction of efforts to censure errant officers puts responsible ones at risk by turning communities against them. In much of the country, this terrible dynamic is taking hold. The interests of decent police officers and law-abiding citizens are closely aligned; when unions take the side of rule-breaking officers against the public, they’re hurting their own members.

Another point to keep in mind: Policing in America is exceptionally dangerous by the standards of most rich countries, partly because policy makers have failed so comprehensively to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Police officers are left to grapple with this failure — one that makes routine interactions with citizens more hazardous than they should be. De-escalation needs to be a priority. More effective gun control would help enormously.

Better training can serve the same purpose. So might technology — such as red-light cameras — by making traffic stops for minor infractions less necessary. The fewer high-stress encounters between police and people going about their business, the better.

America’s long reckoning with racial injustice has many dimensions. Floyd’s murder was a milestone, and so was Chauvin’s conviction. The first speaks of systemic failure; the second of due process and the possibility of redress. Other investigations of police conduct are underway. They should proceed along the same careful lines, and the public should remember that not all cases are alike. As the nation continues to examine its conscience, it should strive to keep in mind what justice, in its fullest meaning, requires.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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