DENVER — Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday in the murder of George Floyd. But long before this week's verdict, Floyd's death had set the wheels in motion for change in policing across the country, including here in Colorado.
In the weeks after Floyd's death last summer, Colorado legislators passed Senate Bill 217, a sweeping police reform and accountability measure. The bill banned carotid and choke holds and got rid of qualified immunity for officers who act unlawfully, among several other changes.
In light of the Chauvin conviction, we talked with Aya Gruber, a criminal law professor at the University of Colorado, for her perspective on the trial and how Floyd's death could shift public opinion on policing.
What was your initial reaction to the verdict?
I think my main reaction is relief. I feel like, if given this video that was just so heart wrenching and outraging and the majority of the world, millions and millions of people saw it, and millions and millions of people were horrified by it. In the face of that video, the case that the prosecution brought and the worldwide protests that George Floyd's killing sparked — if in the face of that, it would have been an acquittal, it's almost unfathomable.
I just think that people would feel so defeated and especially black Americans would feel just so traumatized ... So there's part of me that just feels relief that there is some semblance of accountability here and some closure for so many people who have looked at this case as a symbol of more than just this case, as a symbol of police violence and racism. And the way those two things have intersected to really subordinate many, many, if not all, black Americans. So I'm relieved. I'm relieved for that part.
This was a relatively quick verdict. What does that tell you about how receptive the jury was to the prosecution's arguments?
I think the jury was receptive to the prosecution's arguments. And even beyond that, the jury saw the video, the jury saw that viral video over and over again. The jury saw with their eyes, and they heard with their ears.
And the defense banked on a defense that generally works in these police matters, ones that make it to court and result in an acquittal and ones that never make it to court, because they're resolved at the departmental level.
And that argument is pretty much everything that police do is reasonable. And that is the argument that has proven successful. And not to get into the weeds with law, but there's a long line of Supreme Court cases that have made that argument successful, that have allowed prosecutors to rely on that argument to not to bring charges, have allowed police departments to rely on that argument not to make changes.
And the jury heard that argument, but they saw with their own eyes this behavior of the police officer, and they said, 'No, this is not reasonable. This is so far from reasonable.'
Could this conviction lead to changes on a larger scale?
We've been seeing with technology, and with bodycam footage, a lot of these police killings of unarmed men of color and kids of color. But this is not a new phenomenon. This has been going on for so long, but it's just getting attention now.
So whether this s truly a turning point, I think depends on what happens next. If people say, 'Oh well, there was a guilty verdict, there's no problem here, right?' Like nothing to look at, because the jury reached the right verdict in this case — I don't think you're going to see a lot of the major structural changes.
But if people keep the pressure on and say this is just the beginning, this is the first step. This is a conviction of this officer in this case, but this is the first step to really preventing all these unecessary police killings, and what we can do to prevent that. And at the same time, you don't want to put police's life in danger. But a lot of these things — there was no danger to Chauvin's life.
Right, the bad apple vs. bad system argument.
Absolutely. That's one of the things that struck me in the prosecution's closing argument, which, again, the prosecution tried a very effective, very persuasive case. But one thing they really emphasized — and it could have been for strategic reasons — but one thing they emphasized was the police are not on trial. Derek Chauvin's on on trial, but policing is not on trial.
And I think for a lot of people policing was on trial. What Chauvin did was individually callous and horrible. But those neck restraints and choke colds and Taserings, and all of this — that is part of police training, and part of police culture and practice.
If we say, like, 'Look, these are just bad apples, and here we're now convicting them and the problem is solved. I think that we're not going to see a lot of those structural changes. But if the pressure keeps up that yes, part of the equation was the individual, but the individual operated within a system, an institution and a history, and we need to keep examining that. Then I think we'll see changes.