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Derek Chauvin’s murder trial raises questions about police accountability nationwide

Jury selection is underway in the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with the killing of George Floyd. One of the central questions: whether a police officer will be convicted on murder charges? Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University's Law Center, and Chuck Wexler, of the Police Executive Research Forum, join Yamiche Alcindor to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jury selection is now under way in the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with the killing of George Floyd.

    One of the central questions, whether a police officer will be convicted on murder charges.

    Yamiche Alcindor picks up the story from here.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Judy, since 2005, more than 125 non-federal officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter for an on-duty shooting. And a little more than 40 officers were convicted, often of a lesser charge.

    For more on all of that, we're joined by Professor Paul Butler, a former prosecutor who now teaches criminal law and race relations at Georgetown University's Law Center, and Chuck Wexler. He is the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. It's an organization dedicated to improving best practices in policing.

    Thank you both for being here.

    Paul, I want to start with you.

    So many people have seen the video, the tragic video of George Floyd's death. A lot of people think this would be a slam-dunk case, but it's very rare for police officers to be charged and convicted. Why is that?

  • Prof. Paul Butler:

    U.S. officers kill about 1,000 people every year. The vast majority of those killings are ruled justified.

    When officers are charged, they're usually found not guilty or the charges are dismissed. The law is set up in a way that makes it very difficult to convict police officers of misconduct. The Supreme Court says that jurors should evaluate the evidence from the perspective of the police officer.

    Cops are not required to use deadly force as a last resort. So, even if they can resolve the situation without killing someone, they're allowed to shoot to kill if they reasonably believe that their life is at risk. And then, when cops are prosecuted, they usually testify that they fear for their safety.

    So, even when they kill people who are unarmed and didn't seem to pose a threat, often that defense, "I fear for my safety," is successful.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, Chuck, there are some who think we give officers too wide of a latitude and that you then get officers who develop a pattern of bad behavior that then maybe ends up with an unjustifiable killing.

    What do you make of the latitude that we give officers? Is it too much?

  • Chuck Wexler:

    Well, I think that Paul was referring to was Graham vs. Connor, the 1989 Supreme Court decision, which judges officers whether or not they were objectively reasonable in their use of force.

    And that has been the standard in police departments for, what, 40-some-odd years. So, until we create policy and training that equips officers to de-escalate situations, I think the juries are going to be challenged to convict.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Chuck just said something really important about juries.

    Paul, I want to come to you. On jury selection that's going on right now in the Derek Chauvin trial, how does race factor into jury selection and to possibly how officers are viewed during trials?

  • Paul Butler:

    Yamiche, jurors are instructed in every case that, when they evaluate evidence, they should use their life experiences and common sense.

    And everything that we know about policing suggests that African Americans and Latinx people have different experiences with police officers than many white people, experiences that leave people of color to be more skeptical.

    It's just as valid to bring those life experiences into the jury room as any other kinds of experiences with police officers, but defense attorneys, when police officers are on trial, often try to exclude Black jurors and Latinx jurors, because they think that they will vote guilty.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Chuck, going to you on policing, you mentioned training.

    I wonder what you think about whether or not it's time to, in some ways, update training, and what you think about the factors that go into training that then end up with these fatal police encounters?

  • Chuck Wexler:

    Well, I think what's happened, especially in the last five years, is, the American people are seeing a side of policing that has been going on for quite some time, and that's use of force.

    And The Washington Post did their study of 1,000 officer-involved shooting; 60 percent involve people with guns, but 40 percent of those involved people who are under some sort of crisis, are using a knife or some other object like that.

    Those are the ones, with the right training, we can impact. But you know what? Training hasn't fundamentally changed in 25 years. So, this is about training. This is also about culture and changing culture.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    I want to stick to that.

    There are some who would say, hearing you say training hasn't changed fundamentally, there has been all this talk of body cameras and all sorts of talk of community policing. Talk to me a little bit about why you think that those conversations and what we have seen over the last few years isn't fundamentally changing training.

  • Chuck Wexler:

    Well, I think, look, what body-worn cameras have done is simply recorded how police are trained now.

    Look, when there's an officer-involved shooting — and I know Paul would say this — would agree — is, when you ask, why did they do it, they did it because that's how they were trained.

    So, I think what you're seeing today is a recognition that we have to change our thinking. There's a use of force continuum, for example, that police are taught. And what that means is, if someone uses one level of force, police officers should use a higher level of force.

    Well, if we change that thinking when people are in crisis, and rather than trying to use more force, sometimes recognize that, in some cases, slowing it down, using time and distance, and backing away and talking might be more effective.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Paul, I want to come to you.

    Chuck is talking about slowing it down. But he's also talking about — and I asked about body cameras. We have seen videos for as long as I — as we can remember, from Rodney King, to the death of Eric Garner. We have seen officers do things on video that maybe the wide majority of the public says, that should result in some sort of — some sort of conviction or some sort of charge. And that hasn't happened in many cases.

    What do you make of how video and body camera footage has impacted this conversation around charging police officers and the role they play?

  • Paul Butler:

    So, video cameras have certainly increased awareness, especially in the white community, about the frequency of police violence and police abuse.

    It hasn't seemed to make a big difference in terms of getting convictions of officers for misconduct. So, we can think about Eric Garner. We can think about Walter Scott. We can think about Tamir Rice. None of those cases resulted in convictions in state court for officers who were filmed doing what the prosecutors charged that they're doing.

    It's often the case that jurors think that, even if the officer is guilty, the person was just trying to do their job. Jurors are often sympathetic about the danger of police work. And so they think, even if the police officer made a mistake, they're reluctant to punish them.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    What usually makes a difference — when we do see an officer charged and convicted, what makes those cases different than in cases — other kinds of cases?

  • Paul Butler:

    What a lot of reformers are doing is looking beyond convictions in criminal court to civil reforms, like the George Floyd Act that was passed in Congress this week, passed by the House, and now is pending before the Senate.

    The idea is that that kind of reform, which outlaws racial profiling and choke holds, and requires training, better training for police officers, creates a database of bad apple cops. The idea is that those kinds of civil reforms would transform policing more than any conviction of one police officer.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, Chuck, I will end with you in the last few seconds we have here.

    What do you make of what Paul is saying?

  • Chuck Wexler:

    Well, I think what we have to do is go upstream on some of these use of force cases.

    We have to ask ourselves, what could the police officer have done before the incident? What kind of training? What kind of policy? All of those things matter.

    Today, what good police departments do is, they Monday-morning quarterback. They look at an incident, whether it's Kenosha or Rochester, and they say, what could we have done differently?

    I think that's where the future lies.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, an important topic.

    Thank you so much, Paul Butler, Chuck Wexler.

  • Paul Butler:

    Always a pleasure.

  • Chuck Wexler:

    Thank you.

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