For Mark Collins, watching the verdict in his Ohio law office, it meant something else. Collins, a defense attorney who has long represented police officers, said he is now rewriting how he will defend officers charged with murder, including one set to stand trial within months.
“The first thing I’m going to say is, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we believe the Chauvin trial was fair and just. Our case is different and unique,’ ” Collins said. “The challenge will be to differentiate the case because the first thing they are going to ask themselves is if they are dealing with another Chauvin.”
Collins’s planned strategy is one example of how the verdict in Chauvin’s case will resonate in future policing cases. While police are rarely convicted of killing people, the closely watched Chauvin trial’s outcome will ripple outward in notable ways, according to legal analysts, former law enforcement officials and others who have been involved in such cases.
Prosecutors appear more willing to bring charges against officers, they said, and police leadership might feel more emboldened to try to dismiss troubled cops. When use-of-force cases move into courtrooms, they said, jurors could be more skeptical of police accounts than in the past.
“It’s a good thing for citizens, so they can see there’s accountability,” said Ronal Serpas, a former police chief in New Orleans and Nashville. “It’s a good thing for cops, so they can see there’s accountability. Police officers don’t want to work with murderers. And Chauvin’s a murderer now.”
Experts cautioned against drawing too sweeping a conclusion from the Chauvin case, warning that individual trials are limited in scope. Chauvin’s case was also unlike many others, observers noted, given that it was unusually well-documented, widely seen and universally condemned.
“It’s one case out of thousands of cases involving police use of force, so we shouldn’t read too much into it,” said Keith A. Findley, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin. “But it’s nonetheless very important, because it is one in which, with the whole world watching, the justice system stepped up and acted to hold the police officer responsible for an unlawful use of deadly force.
“And that is a rarity,” Findley said. “That it happened in this case suggests that perhaps the system is starting to wake up and respond and provide some measure of accountability.”
Since the beginning of 2005, 140 law enforcement officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter for shooting someone while on duty, according to data tracked by Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University.
When officers are charged for shootings, they usually walk free or are convicted on lesser charges. Legal experts and attorneys involved in such trials say these outcomes are due to a common set of factors, including the considerable latitude police have to use force and the trust placed in them by judges and juries.
Officers and their defense attorneys argue that uses of force can be necessary and legal, even if they can also be disturbing to see, and say officers sometimes have to make split-second decisions when facing potential threats.
“The false choice is that every use of force has to result in a conviction against the officer or there’s illegitimate behavior,” Serpas said. “But not every use of force is against the law.”
In Chauvin’s case, policing officials across the country loudly condemned him, declaring that his actions did not represent their profession. So did a parade of officials within the Minneapolis Police Department who testified against Chauvin, including the chief who fired him last year, saying he violated their practices and training.
One way a case like Chauvin’s could lead to changes, Findley said, is because it was so high-profile, which magnified everything that happened.
“It starts in a very small way to create a new norm in which it’s okay for prosecutors to charge, for police officers to testify against other police officers and for juries to convict,” he said. “The system has been very reluctant to do that … every example of doing so, at least the high-profile ones, has the potential to create new norms, new cultures, to at least create the possibility of doing this in the future.”
Video was pivotal in Chauvin’s case, and not just in convincing the jurors to convict him, said Stew Matthews, an attorney who has represented police officers for years, including former Louisville officer Brett Hankison, the lone officer charged in connection with Breonna Taylor’s death last year.
“When there is a video like this, it’s awfully difficult for them to say it was justified,” he said of the other officers who testified. “Before video, I don’t think an officer would flat out lie, but they could color whatever they said to favor their fellow officer. That is less and less possible.”
Still, a focus on lone officers in high-profile cases might obscure broader issues, Findley said.
“Accountability when it’s directed at individual officers has serious limitations … it’s sort of a bad apples approach,” he said. “I’m sure there are bad apples. But the problem isn’t bad apples, the problem is a system that fosters, permits bad apples to be bad apples.”
Experts said the police testimony in Chauvin’s trial was unprecedented in a criminal case. But Serpas drew a parallel between the police chief condemning Chauvin in court and other cases in which top police officials sought to fire or discipline officers, only to see their efforts overturned through arbitration.
A 2017 Washington Post investigation found that the country’s largest police departments were forced to reinstate hundreds of officers fired for misconduct after appeals required by union contracts.
“In this case, the jury didn’t overturn it,” Serpas said. “Imagine if every chief was able to get that done when you have these people who are returned to service who have no business being in policing.”
The police testimony was a key difference from other cases in which police have been charged with crimes, and could lead other officers to be open to it in the future, some observers said.
“I think there will be some empowerment for officers to testify against another officer if a crime was committed and it goes to trial,” said Susie Charbel, who prosecuted a Mesa, Ariz., police officer for shooting and killing a man. “What we saw with Chauvin shifted that.”
When Charbel prosecuted Philip Brailsford for fatally shooting Daniel Shaver, other officers lined up in support of their colleague, she said. Brailsford was acquitted in 2017.
Laney Sweet, Shaver’s widow, said she hopes Charbel is right.
“When I saw him being taken away in handcuffs, that’s when I knew the world had changed,” Sweet said of Chauvin. “They did it right then and there … I am really happy for the family that they received justice. I daydreamed about what it would be like for us if that had happened. We never got that.”
Charbel thinks prosecutors may also be more willing to bring charges against officers who commit crimes — especially those involving deadly force — because she believes the odds of winning have improved significantly.
“As a prosecutor, your job is to dissect the case and see if there is a likelihood of conviction,” said Charbel, now an attorney with the nonprofit Arizona Voice for Crime Victims. “Right away with these cases we start thinking about how juries will think about a case against a police officer. Will they be able to see past the uniform?”
Painful videos of officers using force, such as Floyd gasping for air, could be changing how jurors view police, she said. But it was unclear if this would change jurors’ deep-seated trust in police, Charbel said. In capital murder cases, she said, potential jurors overwhelmingly answer “yes” on a questionnaire when asked if they are more likely to trust an officer’s testimony over other witnesses.
Even if jurors have changed their perspectives on police, the laws still lean toward police in such cases, said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I suspect you may find jurors more willing to be skeptical of police testimony,” Harris said. “But one fundamental that has yet to change here is the law itself.”
Cases with grim video footage may still run into those laws, he said.
“It’s still going to be really hard to convict police of crimes like this,” Harris said. “You’ll need extremely strong evidence and a very well-tried case, and even then, you may not get what you’re looking for if you want a conviction.”
Even some seemingly unlikely people were hoping to see Chauvin convicted, including Collins, the Ohio attorney who has represented police officers since 1996.
Collins said he and his fellow attorneys watched the outcome in their Columbus law firm’s conference room, because the courthouse — where he was selecting jurors in a case not involving a police officer — was shut down once the verdict was reached amid fears of unrest across the country. The same afternoon, Columbus was shaken by a police shooting of a teenage girl.
If Chauvin had been acquitted, Collins said, “it would have undermined the credibility of officers who use an appropriate use of force.”
Experts said the video of Floyd gasping for air under Chauvin’s knee was so widely seen that it will likely resonate in people’s minds for years.
“This will be the textbook case of what excessive force looks like,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which works with police departments.
Collins says he plans to use a version of that argument in his own cases, including one set to go to trial in August.
Collins is representing Andrew Mitchell, a former Columbus vice officer, charged with killing Donna Castleberry in 2018. Mitchell said he fatally shot Castleberry when she attacked and slashed him during a prostitution arrest. Prosecutors say Castleberry did not think Mitchell, who was in plainclothes, was an officer, but was trying to kidnap and rape her.
Collins said the case is unlike Chauvin’s because his client was fighting for his life against someone armed, a difference he plans to emphasize to jurors.
“I’m hoping that this gives potential jurors the perspective of what bad policing looks like,” he said, adding that he will point this out to future jurors and tell them: “That was wrong. What happened here, in this case, was different.”