Chauvin Outcome Is the Exception, Not the Rule

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. Floyd, who died after Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes, became a rallying point for protestors around the country. Floyd’s death sparked conversations about systemic racism in policing and in the country as a whole.

The conviction is being called historic. Although we can expect the outcome to be appealed, the fact that Chauvin was tried, much less convicted, is noteworthy.

Police in the United States kill about 1,000 people every year. Between 2015 and 2019, for instance, police officers across the country shot and killed 5,400 people. Trials and convictions are rare, however. Since 2005, 110 nonfederal law enforcement officers were charged with murder or manslaughter for shootings that occurred while on duty. Of those charged, 42 were convicted, but often of a lesser crime. Some 50 were acquitted.

When it comes to data on officer behavior, media and other researchers often turn to criminologist Phil Stinson. With advanced degrees in both law and criminology, Stinson is also a former police officer. In his work, Stinson finds that officers are often not held to the same standards when it comes to criminal behavior.

Take drunk driving, for example. Stinson’s research found some 782 cases where officers were arrested for DUI between 2005 and 2010. In discussing this finding, however, Stinson and coauthors state that, “Job loss was known to have occurred much less frequently than criminal conviction, which seems to substantiate the notion that many police agencies and officers minimize or purposively ignore the problem.”

So why are charges so uncommon for police officers? Why are convictions rare? There are several reasons.

First, police officers have substantial leeway when it comes to the use of force. People can (and do) argue about when and whether using force is appropriate. In some cases, it is not. In other instances, it may be justified. When one considers that only six percent of individuals shot by police are unarmed, it’s easier to see how an officer might legitimately use lethal force to protect either themselves or others (though not always, of course).

But what about those instances that don’t involve self-defense or a real threat? In those cases, police unions offer substantial protections, even when misconduct appears obvious. In many cases, officers are able to justify their use of deadly force if they claim “perceived imminent danger.” This standard, however, is remarkably subjective.

Another major reason for the lack of police accountability is “qualified immunity.” Created by the Supreme Court, qualified immunity protects government officials from lawsuits unless it can be shown that an official has violated a “clearly established” constitutional or statutory right. This standard is a massive barrier to police accountability because plaintiffs (i.e. the victims of police misconduct) must not only illustrate a clear legal rule, but also find a prior case with “functionally identical facts.” While intended to protect government officials from frivolous lawsuits for simply performing their jobs, this doctrine has essentially meant that police officers (and other members of government) can engage in truly egregious behavior with virtual impunity.

For many, the verdict in the Chauvin trial feels like a step in the right direction. But the discussions related to policing in the United States (and elsewhere) are far from over. Whether it’s reforming or ending qualified immunity, changing the rules surrounding the transfer of military equipment to police, or work addressing the underlying racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system, there’s a long way to go.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Associate Professor of Economics at Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa.
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