The death of George Floyd ignited a global movement against police violence and systemic racism. But in the trial of the police officer charged with murder in his death, the prosecution’s characterization of the police didn’t sound too different from police’s biggest supporters.
“This is not a prosecution of the police,” said Steven Schleicher, arguing on behalf of Minnesota in his closing remarks Monday.
Policing is “a most noble profession,” he said, and the actions of Chauvin were “not policing.”
“To be very clear, this case is called the ‘State of Minnesota vs. Derek Chauvin,’ this case is not called the ‘State of Minnesota vs. the police,” Schleicher said to the jury.
This was evidenced by the handful of witnesses, many of whom were in law enforcement, who decried Chauvin’s actions, he said. In a rare rebuke of the “blue wall of silence,” Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testified against his former employee, saying Chauvin’s actions “absolutely” violated department policy.
Chauvin, then, according to the prosecution’s logic, is a “bad apple,” a metaphor popularized by pro-police politicians and often police themselves.
Schleicher didn’t bother to use metaphor, saying plainly: “This is not an anti-police prosecution, it’s a pro-police prosecution.”
Part of this argument was certainly meant to take some pressure off jurors in a highly anticipated case being watched by the world. The jury, he emphasized, was not deciding the fate of policing in America. They had a specific task at hand that relates to Chauvin and Chauvin alone, he said.
“The prosecution wanted to make this as easy as they could for the jurors” NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos said. “They didn’t want jurors to feel like they had to convict a police department, they wanted jurors to feel like they could convict a rogue actor.”
Because prosecutors often work “hand-in-hand” with police, “they could never take a position averse to the entire police department,” he said. They didn’t need to prosecute the police department to make a case for Chauvin’s conviction, so why would they?
When they need unanimous support for the conviction, the prosecution also doesn’t want to alienate a pro-police juror.
“We know that these cases are prone to being hung by jurors who are pro-police,” NBC News legal analyst Joyce Vance said.
Still, the prosecution’s pro-police argument reveals the limits of the justice system to carry out the very thing for which it is named.
Pleas for peace and a presidential address: America braces for Chauvin verdict fallout
Schleicher is right in a literal sense: the only person currently on trial is Chauvin.
“In a court of law, individuals are prosecuted,” said Rashawn Ray, a fellow in governance studies at The Brookings Institution and a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. “Because of the over individualization of our court system, institutions are let off the hook.”
Trials like Chauvin’s, he said, become referendums on broader issues, but can’t actually hold policing as a system or institution accountable. An officer goes to prison while the policing system stays intact.
“The court system magnifies the bad apple narrative, it broadens it, it highlights it, it doubles down on it,” Ray said.
This means trials like Chauvin’s only serve to preserve and even redeem the system of policing, said Bree Newsome Bass, an organizer and artist who supports abolishing the police.
“The way the political establishment is approaching this trial is to rehabilitate and reinforce the legitimacy of policing and the legal system,” she said.
It was only days after police officers took the stand to declare Chauvin’s actions unrecognizable that a police officer killed another Black man, Daunte Wright, 20, just a few miles away.
The tragic confluence of events, Bass said, show that Chauvin’s actions are “exactly what policing is,” even if the prosecution argues the opposite. Both the officers involved in the killings, Chauvin and Kim Potter, were training other cops during the fatal encounters.
When the prosecution working to convict Chauvin and the activists leading the fight for racial justice are at odds with each other, it calls into question what a guilty conviction for Chauvin would mean.
“Daunte Wright’s death blew a hole in the argument that Chauvin is some kind of aberration,” Bass said. “This trial is far from being an indictment or a true confrontation of the circumstances that led to George Floyd’s murder.”