Last week during a routine arrest Minneapolis police officers knelt on George Floyd’s neck for several minutes, finally killing him. This act fits a long and too-frequent pattern of incidents where police use substantial and often lethal force for minor offenses (in this case, police were called because Floyd allegedly attempted to pay with a counterfeit $20).
When acts like this happen the story is often depressingly similar. The police contend the subject was resisting arrest, but film footage suggests otherwise. Similarly, in Floyd’s case, officers originally said Floyd was intoxicated and resisted arrest, whereas, footage from multiple angles, including local storeowners, does not show him resisting arrest in the moments before. More importantly, even if he at some point resisted arrest, he certainly was not resisting while Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee was dug into his neck, slowly killing him.
Since then, Minneapolis had been engulfed in protests and riots. Multiple private businesses and homes have been burned, including a Target, and of all things, an AutoZone store. Thursday night, during a protest at a police precinct, the police evacuated en masse, protestors stormed the precinct and burned it down. Then, early Friday morning, state police foolishly arrested a CNN news crew that was merely on the scene reporting. State Police later tweeted that the officers released them as soon as they realized they were reporters, but the live TV coverage of the event clearly showed the reporter identifying himself as working for CNN.
We have a deep-rooted problem in our country. Far too many police encounters with citizens end in the death of suspects, and far too few police are held accountable. The legal standard, in many cases, for justifying the use of lethal police force amounts to an officer claiming, “I felt afraid for my life.” While that is often accurate, it is also often insufficient. It is by some metrics easier for a police officer to justify killing an American citizen in inner city Minneapolis than for a Special Forces soldier to justify killing a terrorist in Fallujah, Iraq. This has got to stop.
At the same time, protests have yet again rapidly turned into violent mobs that have destroyed, looted, and physically threatened fellow citizens. In Minneapolis, a mob set fire to a small business store front and firefighters had to risk their own lives rushing through the mob to rescue families living in second- and third-floor apartments above the store. Similarly, in Louisville a protest started in response to yet another police killing quickly descended into violence and seven people were shot.
While it is certainly true that the vast majority of our nation’s police are hard working men and women who do their jobs serving and protecting us well, it is also true there are too many unjustified acts of violence by some police officers against Americans, both black and white. And it is patently obvious that many in the African-American community do not trust the police, with good reason.
There has been a pattern of cases where police officers are filmed in acts that result in the deaths of citizens, often but not always black, and officers are minimally disciplined, rarely prosecuted, or almost never convicted. This virtual impunity, so long as officers claim they feared for their lives, spurs anger. That anger is frequently deserved. We should want our officers to be safe of course, but we do not expect firefighters to be able to say, “I feared for my life if I ran into that burning building, so I let those people die.”
Yet none of this justifies violent protests in our city streets, which often quickly becomes rioting, more focused on destruction and revenge than on justice. Nor does it justify arresting reporters for exercising their First Amendment rights.
It is time for us to stop seeing police violence and the ensuing protests in such a black and white way — too many see these incidents and immediately conclude that either the police are always right and criminals are “asking for it,” or that all police are out to get them and any action, however, violent, is justified. Police have a right to protect themselves, but they also have a duty to protect us. Similarly, African-American communities have a right to protest, and reason to, but they ought to seek to do so in way that does not cause more violence and destruction.
Some of our state officials and officers need to remember that their job is to protect us, not instill fear.
Dr. Caleb Verbois is an assistant professor of political science at Grove City College and an affiliated scholar at the John Jay Institute.