Some Post-Verdict Thoughts on Defunding Police Forces
It was a good day...a day of righteous vindication, relief after a tense three-week trial, and a moment of much needed closure. Police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder and manslaughter. One of the welcome implications of this verdict is that it begins to break through the insidious and longstanding resistance to police accountability. Moreover, this is a trial that would never have even gone forward had it not been for the determination and relentless pressure of justice activists. When it is coordinated and uncompromising, public pressure and activism work.
I will not trouble you with the details of the trial—these have been covered very thoughtfully by the people at Democracy Now. However, there was one noteworthy event at the close of the trial which I feel constrained to comment upon. Before the jury were excused to make their momentous decision, Derek Chauvin's defence lawyer filed a motion for a mistrial based on comments made by Congresswoman Maxine Waters. What did she say? “I hope that we’re going to get a verdict that says guilty-guilty-guilty...And if we don’t, we cannot go away. We’ve got to stay on the street. And we’ve got to get more active, we’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.”
The motion for mistrial was, of course, a somewhat desperate, though predictable move by defense lawyers who were thrashed by the plain facts and a first-rate prosecution. There is nothing unusual or scandalous about this. It was the sort of move any lawyer might make when defending a client. Predictable as well: the laughable response by Republicans to censure Waters for inciting violence--these were, of course, the same Republicans who supported Trump's calls for violent insurrection!
The real scandal is not with defense or prosecution but in what presiding Judge Peter Cahill said. He was legally compelled to reject the defense motion, but then remarked “Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned." Judge Cahill should really be the one censured and publicly shamed for making this remark--especially because he previously ordered members of the jury to be sequestered--i.e., separated from other people in order to prevent outside influences from swaying a decision. Further he did not allow them to carry phones or any electronic devices and there were ordered not to watch any news about the case. Moreover, Judge Cahill is also quite aware that many elected officials have been talking about this case, expressing opinions on what the outcome should be. He did not seem to be worried enough to warn that these comments might influence the jury or be possible grounds for appeal or mistrial.
But somehow when an 82-year-old black congresswoman calls for people to continue protesting and fighting against the reign of police terror happening in Minnesota--well that simply cannot be tolerated and is grounds for an appeal by defense lawyers.
The Implications of this Verdict
As I said above, one of the most important implications of this verdict is that it demonstrates that police are not and should never be considered to be above the law. But the Derek Chauvin trial also brings to light another significant fact that we should seriously consider: the necessity of defunding police forces in North America. Policing in America begins with slave patrols of white volunteers empowered to use vigilante tactics to enforce slavery laws. It ends with racial profiling, criminalizing the poor, and murder. In Canada, the North-West Mounted Police force was created to protect territory seized from Indigenous people and enforce their relocation away from traditional lands. It ends with the criminalizing of poor and indigenous people. In both cases, police were created to control and terrorize these groups, whenever possible imprison them and thereby protect an economic system built on racism, theft, and enslavement.
We need to fully understand these origins and this history if we hope to articulate a paradigmatic shift away from present policing and build a nationwide consensus on how we can protect people from harm while addressing difficult social ills and recognizing human rights and human dignity. We simply do not need a racist, militarized police force that diverts millions of dollars away from more important social and community programs, and is replete with violent police officers who demand people abjectly kneel before their power and authority.
Instead, we need a public health authority charged with the responsibility of delivering community-based violence interruption and community-based, trauma-centered harm reduction. Rather than waste millions in tax-payer dollars for police, it is time we created the conditions for safe, healthy, and vibrant communities--reasonable housing for all; a guaranteed basic income; robust public healthcare; the decriminalization of all street drugs; alternative emergency response services and increased funding for addiction and victim services.
These kinds of community-oriented initiatives are based on mutual care and the common public good--they not only decriminalize poverty and drug addiction but create safer communities, save lives and reduce human suffering. Criminalizing, surveilling, policing, and imprisoning human beings does not work as a deterrent. That plain fact has been demonstrated in study after study. The problem is that we have created a society that looks to policing to address social and health issues and problems which they are intrinsically incapable of resolving through the use of excessive or lethal force.
The bottom line: It is really time to defund police forces, rethink harm reduction strategies and completely end the criminalization of drug use and non-violent protest. Instead of militarized police using violent measures and lethal force, we need to think, harm reduction, de-escalation, and peace-keeping. Fostering equitable, healthy, and safe communities will go a long way to reducing criminality. As for situations where individuals resort to violence or threat of harm to others, there certainly should be a role for a limited policing force.
But even here the first priority would be de-escalation not the use of force. That would require that police be thoroughly vetted, educated to a high level, and trained in peace-keeping and de-escalation as well as the use of reasonable force. Moreover, any investigation of police wrongdoing would not be carried out by police but rather by a designated and impartial citizen group.
The Derek Chauvin conviction was a necessary and just outcome. It was also a wake-up call for communities to seriously discuss defunding police agencies and departments and reimagine what it means to live in a healthy and safe community.