Eric Nelson, the defense attorney in the Derek Chauvin murder trial, raised some interesting points during his closing arguments Monday about a significant culprit in police-civilian confrontations like the one that ended George Floyd's life in Minneapolis. Chauvin's training, Nelson suggested, was designed to be followed by rote. Nelson's step-by-step recital of written procedures Chauvin was trained to follow, matched with a video depiction of those procedures as he and other officers tried to subdue Floyd, made it seem as if officers deserve to be excused for behaving more like machines than thinking humans.
As is evident in the post-killing analysis of far too many police-civilian confrontations across the country, officers fall back on training that minimizes rational thought and maximizes alertness to personal danger and the use of deadly force to address it. The result is that unarmed individuals like Floyd, or others in the throes of mental-health crises, wind up dead while officers retreat to the standard defense that they were doing only what their training called for.
Chauvin got the guilty verdict he deserved for suffocating Floyd to death by pressing his knee on the handcuffed suspect's neck and back for 9 1/2 minutes. The question yet to be answered is why Chauvin let himself remain oblivious to Floyd's descent into unconsciousness and death as he continued pressing his knee down. Nelson's fallback defense: That was what Chauvin was trained to do.
If so, then clearly the training deserves its own trial. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday announced a Justice Department "comprehensive review" of the Minneapolis Police Department's "policies, training, supervision and use-of-force investigations." But why stop with Minneapolis? It's a nationwide problem, including in St. Louis. The pattern keeps repeating itself: Police in the heat of confrontation react to a perceived or imagined threat by killing a person — disproportionately a person of color. The public reacts with outrage and, sometimes, violent protest. Tensions die down. Then it happens again. And again. And again.
The pattern suggests that a wholesale review is merited not just in Minneapolis but wherever police training puts the preservation of life behind the emphasis on using deadly force to resolve a confrontation. Police departments would, of course, argue that this is exactly what they do now. But the pattern and practice says otherwise.
We could go through the growing list of chokehold deaths and police-involved shootings that have occurred in recent years, or even recent days, but the conclusion remains the same: People who don't deserve to die, particularly when suspected of committing minor infractions, are being killed by police who behave as if they've been placed on autopilot. Their defenders later assert that the officers deserve the benefit of the doubt when making split-second decisions in the heat of the moment. That answer simply isn't good enough anymore.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH