Chauvin's Guilty Verdict Isn't the End. It's the Beginning of an Era of Police Accountability | Opinion

Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck for nine minutes. It took a Minnesota jury just 11 hours to reach a verdict. Chauvin was found guilty on all three counts, of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

It is a watershed moment for the police accountability movement, one that represents the dawn of a new era in American policing.

The Chauvin murder trial was perhaps the highest-profile criminal case against a police officer accused of killing an unarmed Black man. The trial began after a summer of some of the largest protests against police brutality in American history. And the case was not isolated; Floyd's death was one of a string of highly publicized incidents in which white police officers shot unarmed Black men.

Nor was the Chauvin guilty verdict a forgone conclusion. There was considerable angst in our community that Chauvin would be found innocent; historically, police in the United States have rarely been convicted of manslaughter or murder, thanks to systemic bias that favors police accounts of events, close relationships between local prosecutors and police departments, and the more general difficulty Black and brown Americans have faced getting favorable outcomes in the legal system.

But the outcome of the Chauvin trial has given a lot of us hope. It truly feels like it may be an inflection point, especially considering that two-thirds of Americans approved of murder charges being filed against Chauvin, and nearly the same percentage said that a not-guilty verdict would have been a step backwards for race relations.

That doesn't mean that cases of police shooting unarmed citizens are going to stop tomorrow. But it does mean that the coming era of police accountability is on the horizon.

George Floyd
Members of George Floyd's family and Rev. Al Sharpton(R), the founder and President of National Action Network arrive at the Courthouse In Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 19, 2021. KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images

Three factors have led to this moment, in which the demand for police accountability might finally see some success. For starters, there has been a demographic shift, which has moved the center of the country to the left and changed which voices get heard. There has also been a massive long-term drop in crime, which has made crime less salient in the minds of middle and upper class liberals living in cities. Equally if not more important has been the rise of smartphones and social media, the crucial medium whereby police brutality has been captured on camera.

Demographic change is the most obvious contributing factor. There have only been eleven Black Senators in U.S. history and seven of those Senators were elected in the past 16 years. While these numbers are still small, the Congressional Black Caucus has more than tripled in size since its founding in the early 1970s. These changes mean that the political concerns of minority groups receive greater consideration in the public discourse.

Equally important is the drop in crime rates, which is not talked about nearly enough as a factor in the rise of the police accountability movement. According to the Pew Research Center, the violent crime rate in the U.S. fell 49 percent from 1993 to 2019, the recent COVID-related uptick in crime notwithstanding. This means that a generation of young liberals who are active in politics no longer view cities as hotbeds of crime.

It's a salient point: Fear of crime has long been an ideological tool that conservatives used to prevent reform in police departments. Without it, white liberals living in urban areas have become much more favorable to protest movements.

But the importance of smartphones also cannot be understated. The common denominator in the most publicized police brutality cases today is the availability of camera footage. The ubiquitous nature of smartphones has allowed everyday citizens to become journalists, bringing to life what otherwise would have been mere statistics.

Seeing the video of a police officer shooting or killing an unarmed citizen produces a range of emotions that are absent when one is simply reading the numbers; those videos have galvanized mass protests in real time.

Thanks to these factors, the police accountability movement has already had some significant political wins. The past decade has seen a proliferation of departments mandating police body cameras. It's a process accelerated by the demands of protesters for police accountability, who have long pointed to social science research that body cameras can significantly reduce police use of force incidents.

Major cities across the country have also started thinking about reimagining policing, considering legislative proposals which would have been nonstarters even just a few years ago. And there is ongoing research which suggests that Black Lives Matter protests themselves are associated with a 15 to 20 percent drop in police homicides.

At the political level, modern Democratic standard bearers from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to President Joe Biden decry "systemic racism" and "white nationalism," topics which were considered off limits for political elites as recently as 20 years ago. And research indicates that the overall number of unarmed citizens killed by police is declining, even as the racial disparities largely remain.

Since the police accountability movement was established in earnest last decade, it has seen rapid growth in size and popularity and already led to significant changes in American society. We have every reason to believe that these shifts are going to continue, and that the relationship police have with citizens is going to change in a way that is more favorable to marginalized groups.

What we're witnessing now is not the end of a moment. It is the beginning, an inflection point. Law enforcement and the criminal justice system will see significant changes at the local, state, and federal level over the next generation.

And when historians and political scientists of the future look back at what sparked such significant change against entrenched interests, they'll look back on cases like the Derek Chauvin murder trial.

Marcus Johnson is a PhD student at American University who studies how political institutions impact the racial wealth gap.

The views in this article are the writer's own.