When news broke that the jury was set to announce the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, Dr. Joseph Richardson’s students asked him if they could stop class early.
“It’s on everyone’s minds,” said Richardson, the acting chair of the University of Maryland’s African-American studies department and an anthropology professor.
Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, in May of last year. He knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost 10 minutes, as Floyd repeatedly said he could not breathe. Almost a year later, Chauvin was convicted on all charges: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Many Black Americans felt a sense of relief after the verdict, but uncertainty remains. Now, community members are reflecting and trying to answer several questions: where do we go from here? And how do we stop the police from killing Black people and other people of color?
Maria Velez, an associate professor at this university’s criminology and criminal justice department, said it’s hard to say what’s next.
“Addressing the issue of police violence is a big, big task,” Velez said. “And while this court case was certainly important, it was probably just the beginning of trying to dismantle the system that has led to police violence.”
Conversations surrounding policing in the United States often fall into a debate of reform versus complete abolition and reconstruction of the criminal justice system.
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Those who advocate for police reform may use Chauvin’s trial and verdict as evidence of a need for more responsive and humane policing, Velez said.
To Richardson, police reform is just tinkering around the edges for a low price in progress — if it makes any progress at all, it’s not transformative enough.
“We have to totally deconstruct what we see right now in terms of American policing,” Richardson said. “And that will require a totally new vision of what the police should look like.”
Such reconstruction would partially mean getting rid of qualified immunity, Richardson said. Qualified immunity is a doctrine that protects all local and state officials, including law enforcement officers, from being sued in civil court unless they violated a “clearly established” law or constitutional right.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in February, would limit qualified immunity. Many Republicans have balked at any legislation that would diminish qualified immunity.
The current role of local prosecutors is also an issue, Richardson said. The prosecutor’s office should not work hand in hand with the police and then investigate cases of police brutality. Richardson calls that “an incestuous relationship” and a “conflict of interest.”
Prosecutors rely on police investigations and work. But they are also supposed to ensure the police are complying with the law. There must be an independent prosecutor’s office — one that does not work with the police on a regular basis — to look into cases of police violence, Richardson said.
Moreover, there are facets of policing right now that should not be the responsibilities of the police, Richardson said. Mental health issues and minor disputes, such as the claim that Floyd had a counterfeit $20 bill, should fall onto other services.
“Police are asked to do everything to respond to every problem in society, and I don’t think police have the capability or bandwidth to do it,” he said.
Ricco Hall, a lecturer in the public policy school who teaches a class on Black movements, said the ideas of defunding the police, police reform and abolishing the criminal justice system are “beautiful.” But, he said operationalizing these ideals is not realistic.
“They haven’t happened because they can’t happen,” Hall said. “There’re so many intricate, interdependent systems and people … and our society as a whole depends on these systems — even though that may be rigged and abusive to Black and brown people.”
Hall said getting rid of an entire system that the country was built on is not convenient — it’s like fixing a plane while flying it.
Hall stressed that while external change is important, changes in individual social identity must happen as well. He argues there must be rehumanizing of “the police force, as well as Black and brown people all around.”
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Part of that means enhancing the relationships between police officers and the communities they serve, similar to the education system. He argues police officers must serve the community they live in, and live in the communities they serve.
“If you don’t really have a true sense of ownership of the place that you’re supposed to serve, or a true sense of belonging where you’re serving … there’s an obvious disconnect,” he said.
For Ashanti Martinez, an organizer of PG Change Makers — a grassroots coalition in Prince George’s County that formed in the wake of Floyd’s murder — policing should look different across communities. There shouldn’t be a blanket, one-size-fits-all model, he said.
“We’ve got to break it down to the most granular levels and allow communities to have the control,” he said.
Community involvement could mean participating in hiring practices and review boards for misconduct, Martinez said. If the community had this power and understood its relationship with the police, there would be drastic changes within the criminal justice system, he said.
“The police are accountable to more than just the government. They are accountable to the people,” he said. “There’s buy-in from community to where they have a sense of responsibility and ownership to the policing structure that they’re under as well.”
There’s also a need to reevaluate how and why the system incarcerates people, Martinez said. There must be a shift in how to prepare and rehabilitate people for a world after incarceration, he added.
“I don’t believe in abolishing everything,” Martinez said. “I do believe there needs to be a rework. I do believe there needs to be a rewrite and a reimagining.”
Senior Staff Writer Jonathan Tercasio contributed to this story.