IT WAS A day of national focus on policing, a moment when people at least began to allow for the possibility that there might be change in a seemingly never-ending story in which law enforcement officers are rarely held accountable for wrongdoing involving black Americans.
It was more a collective sigh of relief than unbridled celebration or joy that greeted a jury’s conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on all three murder charges he faced in the killing of George Floyd. Despite the horrifying video evidence showing Chavin calmly kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as the life drained out of him, it was hard to be certain of the trial outcome after such a long history of police being given the benefit of doubt, and often then some, in cases where they are charged with illegal use of force.
The May 2020 killing of Floyd unleashed the broadest set of protests in the country on racial justice issues in more than a generation. But they hardly emerged in a vacuum, coming instead after nearly a decade of growing organizing against police brutality under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. Unlike earlier efforts to secure voting rights, open access to public accommodations, or end deliberate school segregation, this movement — as its name telegraphed — centered on the most primal of concerns.
“It goes back to the earliest forms of white on black violence,” Byron Rushing, a former Massachusetts state representative and the founding president of Boston’s Museum of African American History, said last spring when the protests were at their peak. “This goes back to lynching, so all of the analogies we make to historical violence make sense in a way that people can’t argue against. You have civil rights victories, you have hiring victories, you have a president,” he said, referring to Barack Obama’s election, “but you still haven’t solved this fundamental structural, cultural racism.”
Harold Meyerson captured this yesterday in the American Prospect. “That the demands of the movement are so heartbreakingly basic is a measure of how far we have to go just to become a civilized society,” he wrote. Or as Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post, “This shouldn’t feel so much like a victory.”
Closer to home, the Chauvin conviction overshadowed a case that shows just how elusive the quest for police accountability and transparency can be.
Boston officials released some records related to the case of former police officer Patrick Rose Sr., who now stands accused of sexual assault on six minors. The records show that then-commissioner Paul Evans was told internal investigators “sustained” the first such complaint against Rose, in the mid 1990s, even though prosecutors were not able to bring charges because the 12-year-old victim recanted. After being consigned to administrative duty during the investigation, Rose was reinstated to full active duty after the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, the city’s largest police union, threatened to file a grievance. (Rose would go on years later to serve as president of the union.)
The documents — and a statement from Acting Mayor Kim Janey — suggest Evans approved Rose’s return to duty while making no effort to fire him. This morning, the Globe reports that it received a nearly 700-word statement from Evans just before midnight Tuesday in which he takes issue with that characterization. He called on Janey to release the full file on Rose, claiming it will show the department did all it could to hold him accountable.
If that’s the case, it only underscores the scope of the reform challenge facing police departments. While it will take continued sustained effort to hold officers like Chavin accountable — and work to minimize such killings to begin with — the Rose case may point toward the need for more sweeping overhaul of police contracts that often seem to limit the power of those in charge to determine who is truly fit to serve.