An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the findings of a Physicians for Human Rights report about police violence during protests in the summer of 2020. The report found that police shot "less lethal" weapons at 115 people in the two months after George Floyd's death, not in one month after.
Reports on the aftermath of the verdict suggested a shared release of anxiety and dread that had built up in the months and weeks heading into the trial. I felt myself exhale, too. I recognize the monumental effort it took to reach a guilty verdict for the police killing of a Black man, but I don’t see the verdict as an outright victory.
After a decade of studying policing, I’ve come to see law enforcement as an institution that combines episodes of extraordinary violence and ordinary dominance. The video recordings of Floyd’s murder document the extraordinary violence police are capable of, but the cumulative harm of the ordinary dominance — frequent stops, aggressive, invasive and humiliating searches, rude and demeaning behavior — are not often captured on video recordings.
It may be a sign of change that the video recording of Floyd’s murder sparked a shared sense of outrage in a way that the video recording of Rodney King’s brutal beating at the hands of Los Angeles police officers did not. Yet the success of the “bad apples” argument put on by the prosecution suggests that we are still far from recognizing the routine actions of law enforcement as a significant part of the problem with policing.
So the verdict is a rebuke of the extraordinary violence of policing, but the trial wasn’t a referendum on the ordinary dominance of policing.
If history is a guide, Chauvin’s trial, which relied heavily on the testimony of “reasonable officers,” will paradoxically increase the capacity of the institution to deliver ordinary acts of aggression and violence against people such as Floyd. This is what happened 50 years ago, after the publication of the Kerner Report, the last time we found ourselves — as President Biden alluded to in his statement following the verdict — at a national turning point in police reform.
The report studied what caused more than 100 urban uprisings during the summer of 1967. The authors attributed these “riots” (as the report called them) to racism in policing and White racism more broadly. In one of the most oft-quoted excerpts from the study, the commission warned that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
The ordinary dominance of policing was crucial to maintaining these two societies. In city after city, the police protected the interests of Whites while routinely using force to remind Black people of their proper place in this racially bifurcated world.
In addition to documenting the explicit and broadly accepted racism of police officers, the report also noted routine assaults on the dignity of Black people at the hands of officers who conduct “intensive, often indiscriminate, street stops and searches.” The authors cited the large-scale lack of accountability for police wrongdoing: “in some cities [police officers] have little fear of punishment for using unnecessary force because they appear to have a degree of immunity from their departments.”
When the report was released in March 1968 (after a pre-publication leak to The Washington Post), President Lyndon B. Johnson rejected its findings for fear that the emphasis on White racism would overshadow “all the president had already done for civil rights and against poverty.”
And after the election of Richard M. Nixon that fall, the federal government invested heavily in police professionalization, police tactics and new technologies. This investment increased dramatically from the late 1970s through the end of the 20th century, as the government funneled millions toward state and local police departments to fight wars on drugs and street violence. The power of the police would expand once again post-9/11 with an influx of new tools and technologies designed to fight terror abroad repurposed to fight crime, immigration and police protests at home.
The consequences of these investments were on full display during the uprisings last summer that originally started in outrage over Chauvin’s murder of Floyd. Police officers confronting protesters were armed like soldiers with chemical agents, sound cannons and “e shields” — police shields outfitted with electrodes that allow officers to deliver electric shocks. A Physicians for Human Rights report found that in the two months following Floyd’s murder, police shot at least 115 people — protesters, journalists and bystanders — in the head or neck with “less lethal” kinetic impact projectiles, including rubber bullets and tear gas canisters “fired into crowds from a gun, rifle, or other launcher.” Linda Tirado, a freelance photographer, was permanently blinded in one eye after an officer shot her with a foam bullet during a protest in Minneapolis.
This is the profession where Chauvin found a home for nearly 20 years — a home where his actions, including reports of his kneeling on the back and neck of people he’d handcuffed, placing chokeholds on them, and, in one
case reported by the New York Times, holding a man’s face in a rain puddle, were viewed as ordinary, until they were recorded and broadcast to the world.
In the weeks after Chauvin killed Floyd, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the South Minneapolis precinct where the murder happened had a reputation for “being home to police officers who played by their own rules.”
Court records are an archive of brutality: a fractured jaw for one suspect, another pistol-whipped, the sexual exploitation of suspected sex workers. These are the action that led to a common saying in the precinct, as reported in the Tribune: “There’s the way that the Minneapolis Police Department does things, and then there’s the way they do it ‘in Threes’ (the Third Precinct).”
This police violence might seem extraordinary, but a national survey of police officers conducted by Pew in 2016 suggests it’s ordinary. A majority of officers in the United States — 56 percent — reported their belief that “an aggressive rather than courteous approach is more effective in certain neighborhoods.”
My research team and I discovered a similar sentiment in our analysis of interviews with police officers in a major metropolitan area in the western U.S. As one officer (a woman) explained it, “Other than the projects, you stay professional.”
A report published by University of Minnesota sociologist Michelle Phelps and her research team six months after Floyd’s murder also revealed “frequent negative experiences with police” in North Minneapolis, including “racial targeting and harassment, slow or apathetic responses to calls for service, [and] verbal and physical abuse.” Not surprisingly, the researchers report that “these concerns were greatest among Black or African American residents, with Black men in particular reporting the most pervasive negative experiences.”
The normalization and acceptance of this ordinary dominance throughout the Minneapolis Police Department might help to explain why Chauvin was appointed as a field training officer, among the most important roles when it comes to police training, even as formal complaints against him mounted. The prosecution sought to introduce multiple complaints against Chauvin for excessive use of force into the trial record. But the judge allowed just one, from an arrest in 2017 in which Chauvin knelt on the back of a handcuffed woman who was not resisting. Like Floyd, the complainant also pleaded for her life, begging Chauvin, “Don’t kill me.”
After ignoring and even rewarding Chauvin’s routine use of violence, police leaders in the Minneapolis Police Department took to the stand to condemn Chauvin’s use of extraordinary violence — which was captured not in a formal complaint, but on a video recording by then 17-year-old Darnella Frazier.
Now as punishment for his violent, degrading and dehumanizing actions, Chauvin will be condemned to prison, an institution built on violence, degradation and dehumanization. A strange sort of justice — one that places the blame for Floyd’s death entirely on Chauvin while all but exonerating the system that trained him in the first place.
So the verdict is undeniably historic. But it’d be dangerous to consider it an endpoint, or even a turning point. It is part of an ongoing and necessary reckoning with white supremacy and it holds an important lesson for those who are committed to this work. The overwhelming amount of emotional, psychological and material resources it took to reach a guilty verdict in this case is just a fraction of what it will take to claim victory in the trials ahead.
The Derek Chauvin trial: What you need to know
The jurors: The people who decided Derek Chauvin’s fate
Video timeline: How George Floyd’s death unfolded in Minneapolis
George Floyd’s America: Examining systemic racism through the lens of his life
Full coverage: Race & Reckoning