Following the murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin this week, members of Colorado's Black legal community expressed doubts about whether the verdict represented true accountability.
“I don’t really know how we get to heal and say Mr. Chauvin is held accountable for his actions when, if I were the defense attorney, I would emphasize that he was not found guilty of intentionally killing George Floyd," said Jes Jones, a criminal defense lawyer based in Denver. "That's so difficult to want to hold someone accountable for something that they don't see themselves as having done."
Jones was a panelist Thursday in a virtual discussion sponsored by the Sam Cary Bar Association, Colorado's professional organization for Black attorneys. On April 20, a jury found Chauvin, who is white, guilty of killing Floyd, a Black man, after Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes in May 2020.
The convictions for murder in the second and third degree, however, meant Chauvin had acted without the intent to kill Floyd. Jones worried Chauvin may take away the wrong message from the verdict.
“I imagine he will have that same resentment that my clients often do: This prison sentence does nothing for him other than ruin his life," she speculated.
In a statement following the trial, the Sam Cary Bar Association asked the public to keep in mind that a culture of "aggressive, authoritative policing" still exists around the country, which "prioritizes police safety and inculcates a mindset of shooting first and asking questions later." Sgt. Carla Havard of the Denver Police Department, who also leads the Black Police Officer's Organization within the agency, expressed her disappointment that after cell phone video of Floyd's murder went global, the pace of police slayings has persisted.
“My responsibility is to ensure that what these people at the top are saying that sounds really good ... is translated all the way down to that one officer, oftentimes white, that’s stopping that Black male in the alley in Park Hill at two o’clock in the morning," she said. "I wanna make sure what we’re saying — all these policies in place, all these changes, all these classes we're forcing these officers to go to, all the promises that we’re making, all this transparency we’re promising we have — I want to make sure that officer is doing the right thing for the right reason."
Havard advocated for changing the lens of officer recruitment, from seeking out the traditionally "meathead type of person" to someone with a broad range of skills. Crucially, for her, was the ability to hold supervisors accountable for their subordinates' behavior.
“We hire adults. Their value systems are already in place," Havard observed. "If you have likeminded people, of course they’re not gonna say anything."
Panelists in the discussion alluded to Colorado's landmark policing reform legislation, Senate Bill 217, enacted last summer amid international Black Lives Matter protests. On Thursday, Attorney General Phil Weiser appeared on CNN to defend the law, which mandated body-worn cameras, created a duty for officers to intervene in situations of excessive force, and eliminated the qualified immunity defense at the state level for officers facing civil lawsuits.
"Communities right now are asking for enhanced training [and] accountability to make sure that when you've got bad actors, they are held accountable," Weiser said, adding that the General Assembly also gave his office the authority to review patterns and practices of civil rights violations among police departments.
"That's something Congress could do for all state attorneys general," he said.
Another criminal justice measure currently under consideration, Senate Bill 62, would place parameters on the ability of police to arrest people for certain lower-level crimes, as opposed to issuing summonses to appear in court.
"I think we all realized that the less contact people have with police officers is better," said Joyce Akhahenda, a public defender and the treasurer of the Sam Cary Bar Association. "Whether it’s people who are mentally ill, whether it’s people who are intoxicated, whether it’s people of color, I think when you want to ensure people’s presence in court, it’s not necessary that we always have to arrest people."
A common thread throughout the virtual discussion was an acknowledgment that racial disparities in the criminal justice system are the result of ingrained prejudice, and the repeated shootings of Black men and women create a perpetual trauma. By themselves, the verdict against Chauvin, his impending sentencing and even the trial of three other officers involved in Floyd's death would not provide closure.
“There are certain wounds that you have to cut open repeatedly, that you have to clean from the inside out before they can heal," said Jones. "And I think this kind of wound that our community is experiencing is like that.”
The Washington Post's database of fatal shootings by American police cataloged 1,021 such deaths in 2020 alone. Black people were killed at more than twice the rate of whites since 2015. Given that, Havard pointed out the added trauma that Black officers can feel amid the protests of police misconduct.
"We’re in this thing because first of all, we want to try to fix it," she said. "You have to be on the inside so you can legitimately know what’s going on with this."
However, when she sees the recurring violence captured on body-worn camera or cell phone footage, "certainly you’re traumatized. Racism and oppression is rooted in America so deeply that any attempt for equity seems like an attack on America."