'Justice for George is freedom for all': scrutiny of police follows Chauvin verdict

WASHINGTON — America's age-old reckoning with police violence against Black people entered a new and uncertain era Wednesday as a sweeping government probe of officer conduct and President Joe Biden's promise of legislative action offered fresh hope for lasting change.

The relief at Tuesday's conviction of Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd quickly turned to resolve, with the White House and the head of U.S. law enforcement each vowing to seize the momentum.

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Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was convicted of murder and manslaughter after Floyd's death beneath his knee last May prompted a global outpouring of rage that resonates to this day.

Attorney General Merrick Garland promptly launched an investigation into the use of force at the Minneapolis Police Department and whether discriminatory practices were endemic at Chauvin's former employer — a probe observers expect could be just the first of many across the U.S.

"Most of our nation's law enforcement officers do their difficult jobs honourably and lawfully. I strongly believe that good officers do not want to work in systems that allow bad practices," Garland said.

"Good officers welcome accountability, because accountability is an essential part of building trust with the community, and public safety requires public trust."

And White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. president meant what he said when he told Floyd's family in a phone call that he would do everything to speed along police reform.

"It's absolutely a priority in his mind, and he feels this is a moment where there should be momentum for action," Psaki said.

Next week's speech to a joint session of Congress will showcase that intent, she added.

"He will use the power of his presidency, the bully pulpit ... to help push the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act forward."

That legislation, approved last month by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, would ban chokeholds, establish national standards for police conduct and make it easier to prosecute officers accused of wrongdoing.

It would also limit "qualified immunity" for law enforcement, which helps shield certain government agencies and officials from civil suits for constitutional violations, like excessive police force.

Whether Biden will be able to successfully shepherd it through the deeply divided and evenly split Senate remains an open question. But Wednesday, it seemed, was not a day for pessimism.

"As people of colour, we never get justice for anything," Floyd's brother, Philonise, said matter-of-factly in an interview on MSNBC.

"I'm excited, my family's excited, the world is excited, because we feel like this is the land of the free. This is why people fight to get here. Justice for George meant freedom for all."

It will be important to focus not on the cases that make the news, but on the lesser-known and far more frequent interactions that don't, said former Baltimore public defender Nila Bala, a criminal justice expert with the D.C.-based libertarian R Street Institute.

"It's very difficult to hold officers accountable unless things go extremely awry, as they did in George Floyd's case," Bala said.

"There are so many more day -to-day incidents that are not captured on video or are not so egregious, but are still an affront to human dignity ... those are the cases I think we really need to think about."

Bala acknowledged, however, that the track record in the U.S. suggests a steep uphill climb ahead.

"This is not a problem that's going to be stopped by one verdict in one case," she said. "There needs to be significant policing reform to rebuild the trust that's been lost between many Americans and law enforcement."

Biden himself made it clear Tuesday he has no intention of letting the moment pass — from his remarkable phone call with family members immediately after the verdict to a striking statement to the U.S. public.

"It is not enough. We can't stop here," Biden said of the verdict.

"We must not turn away. We can't turn away. We have a chance to begin to change the trajectory in this country. It's my hope and prayer that we live up to (Floyd's) legacy."

Just having a Democrat in the White House won't ensure that happens, said Dr. Monnica Williams, a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa.

Real change has to begin with confronting the mismatch inherent in a society where law and order is enforced almost exclusively by a militarized and heavily armed arm of the government with relatively little accountability, she said.

"Most of the work that the police do does not require a gun or a bulletproof vest," Williams said.

"In the United States, the police is very militarized and the idea is you go out and get the bad guy. We forget that, no — the police should be there to serve and protect everyone."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2021.

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