Calling Chauvin a ‘Bad Apple’ Denies Systemic Nature of Racist Police Violence

Regardless of the trial outcome, Marjorie Cohn says the entire system must be indicted as racist and violent.

George Floyd Memorial in Minneapolis, Aug. 17, 2020. (Fibonacci Blue, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

By Marjorie Cohn
Truthout

As the murder trial of Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd proceeds, the prosecution will try to portray the defendant as a “bad apple.” In his opening statement, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell alerted the jurors that they would hear police officials testify Chauvin used excessive force in violation of departmental policy to apply restraints only as necessary to bring a person under control. However, this argument obfuscates the racist violence inherent in the U.S. system of policing.

The first prosecution witness to testify about Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) policies was retired Sgt. David Ploeger, the supervising police sergeant on duty the day Chauvin killed Floyd. It was his job to conduct use of force reviews. Ploeger testified, “When Mr. Floyd was no longer offering up any resistance to the officer,” when he was handcuffed on the ground and no longer resisting, “they could have ended the restraint.”

Lt. Richard Zimmerman of the MPD also testified about what constitutes authorized use of force. He said that once a person is secure or handcuffed, “you need to get him out of the prone position as soon as possible because it restricts their breathing.” When a person is cuffed behind his back (as Floyd was), “it stretches the muscles back,” making it “more difficult to breathe.” Once cuffed, Zimmerman added, “you have to turn them on their side or have them sit up,” noting, “you have to get them off their chest” because that constricts the breathing “even more.”

A June 2020 mugshot of Derek Chauvin. (Wikimedia Commons)

“If your knee is on a person’s neck, that could kill him,” Zimmerman said. “Pulling him down to the ground facedown and putting your knee on a neck for that amount of time, it’s just uncalled for,” he declared.

Zimmerman saw “no reason why the officers felt they were in danger,” which is “what they would have to feel to use that kind of force.” The restraint of Floyd “should have stopped once he was prone on the ground and had stopped putting up resistance,” he stated.

But many Minneapolis police officers receive “Killology training” through the police union, where they are taught to kill rather than de-escalate conflict situations. This training violates the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which require officers to, “as far as possible,” use nonviolent techniques before resorting to force and firearms.

The MPD reported that its officers used violence against Black people at seven times the rate they used violence against white people, during the period from 2015 to 2020.

Prosecutors will likely try to isolate Chauvin as one of “a few bad apples.” That may be an effective prosecutorial strategy to convince jurors they should convict him. But this “rogue cop” characterization — also used after the 1991 Rodney King beating and the police killings of Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and Breonna Taylor — obscures the systemic nature of police violence against Black and Brown people in the United States. Even the best training in the world cannot teach police, who are licensed to kill and deployed to enforce a racist system, not to be racist.

Black people who are unarmed or not attacking police are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people, the Brookings Institution found. Moreover, police kill Black people at more than twice the rate of whites even though Black people account for less than 13 percent of the U.S. population. More than 75 percent of the time, chokeholds are applied on men of color.

Minneapolis Police Lt. Richard Zimmerman giving testimony. (Screenshot)

Prosecutors were compelled to bring charges against Chauvin because the whole world had seen him kill Floyd. After massive protests erupted following the horrifying video of Chauvin’s torture of Floyd — now known to have lasted nine minutes and 29 seconds — the MPD fired Chauvin and prosecutors charged him with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. They later added a charge of second-degree murder.

But what would have happened if eyewitnesses had not recorded Floyd’s death? Would Chauvin have been fired and charged with murder?

Police Impunity Is Norm

Officers know that they rarely face any semblance of accountability for killing Black people. “Officers were charged with a crime in only one percent of all killings by police,” Mapping Police Violence reported in 2020.

For nine minutes and 29 seconds, Chauvin continued to choke Floyd as several bystanders watched, many visibly recording the killing. Chauvin didn’t try to hide what he was doing. As eyewitness Genevieve Hansen testified, Chauvin looked “comfortable” with his weight on Floyd’s neck.

Other police killings of Black people have happened in similarly open ways. Michael Brown was killed while walking down a public street, his body left on the ground for four hours. Eric Garner was choked to death on a public sidewalk after he was suspected of selling illegal untaxed cigarettes.

A cellphone video posted to social media shows Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officers firing seven shots at 29-year-old Jacob Blake as he tries to enter his vehicle on Sunday, August 24, 2020. (Screengrab/Twitter)

Both of those killings, which occurred in 2014, sparked public outrage. Although there was video footage in each case, none was as clear and graphic as the images that documented Floyd’s death. Neither Officer Darren Wilson who killed Michael Brown nor Officer Daniel Pantaleo who killed Eric Garner was ever indicted.

‘Excited Delirium’ Is Racist Myth

As eyewitness after eyewitness who saw Chauvin torture Floyd to death presents emotional testimony, the defense is attempting to distract the jury’s attention away from his brutal murder by laying the ground work to falsely claim that Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes was not the cause of death.

Defense attorney Eric Nelson alerted the jury during his opening statement that it would “learn about things such as … excited delirium.” MPD Officer Thomas Lane pointed his gun at Floyd who was sitting in his car before he was pulled out and choked to death. Although Lane aided and abetted Chauvin by holding Floyd’s legs, Lane asked at one point while Chauvin was choking Floyd, “Should we roll him on his side?” Chauvin replied, “No, staying put where we got him.” Lane then said, “I am worried about excited delirium or whatever,” as Chauvin maintained his knee on Floyd’s neck.

“Excited delirium” is a catch-all defense used to absolve police for killing Black people. According to the Brookings Institution, “[t]he diagnosis is a misappropriation of medical terminology, used by law enforcement to legitimize police brutality and to retroactively explain certain deaths occurring in police custody.” This diagnosis “inaccurately and selectively combines various signs and symptoms from real medical emergencies.”

Indeed, Chauvin’s defense attorneys are falsely implying that Floyd died from drug abuse, as Mike Ludwig reported in Truthout. Pursuant to the “war on drugs,” Black people are disproportionately targeted by police, although they use drugs at the same rate as whites.

Derek Chauvin is a rotten apple. So is Officer Lane who held Floyd’s legs, and Officer J.A. Kueng who held Floyd’s back while Chauvin choked him to death. So is Officer Tou Thoa who kept bystanders from providing aid to Floyd.

But they are only four of myriad officers who kill Black people with impunity. They are not just “a few bad apples.” These officers are emblematic of the systemic racist police violence against Black people in the United States. Regardless of the outcome in the Chauvin trial, the entire system must be indicted as racist and violent, in and of itself.

The International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence against People of African Descent in the United States, for which I am serving as a Rapporteur, heard testimony from family members and attorneys about police killings of 43 Black people and the paralyzing of another, all of whom were unarmed or not threatening the officers or others. The commission, which is investigating whether police violence against Black people in the U.S. amounts to gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms, will release its 200-page report in mid-April. It contains recommendations addressed to national and international policy makers.

As Chauvin’s trial continues, we must remember that this is not simply the story of one “rogue cop.” It is a window into the anti-Black violence perpetrated routinely by police in this country, as part of a brutal and racist system.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and a member of the advisory board of Veterans for Peace. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.

This article is from Truthout. Reprinted with permission.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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14 comments for “Calling Chauvin a ‘Bad Apple’ Denies Systemic Nature of Racist Police Violence

  1. Jared H
    April 9, 2021 at 13:04

    The exclusive focus on “systemic racism” conceals the class nature of police violence.

    Police murder some 1,000 US citizens every year. Of these, some 400-500 do not fit within the category of “black and brown.” What power has “systemic racism” to explain these deaths? It has none. Those deaths are simply ignored. Systemic racism is a poor explanation for police violence broadly. It focuses only on a subset of the problem while ignoring more than 40% of deaths resulting from the phenomena it seeks to explain. This is a glaring example of missing the proverbial forest for the trees.

    If systemic racism cannot explain police violence, then what can? Economic class. What the vast majority of victims of police murder have in common is that they come from poor and working class backgrounds. Police aren’t shooting millionaires of any color dead in the street. They are shooting working class people who find themselves in the most unfortunate and dangerous situations. That’s Tony Timpa, Daniel Shaver and Lindon Cameron. Those three were all unarmed “white” people killed by police whose names we never hear in any mainstream analysis of police violence. Tony Timpa died under similar circumstances as George Floyd. A police officer pinned him face down on the ground with a knee in his back until he was unresponsive and pronounced dead at the scene. Daniel Shaver, a pest control expert, was shot dead by police while unarmed, crawling on the ground and begging for his life. Lindon Cameron, a 13-year-old unarmed autistic boy, was shot dead by police for refusing commands. No police officer involved in these killings was convicted of a crime.

    With that in mind, consider the following paragraph from Cohn’s article:

    ”’Officers know that they rarely face any semblance of accountability for killing Black people. “Officers were charged with a crime in only one percent of all killings by police,” Mapping Police Violence reported in 2020.”’

    Here, Cohn, references a statistic that analyzes accountability related to *all* police killings, but applies it only to “black” people specifically. It would have been more accurate for Cohn to have said that officers face no accountability for killing people, full stop. I think this clearly reveals the parochial nature of Cohn’s explanation for widespread police murder.

    Police brutality is a crisis that impacts the poor and working class of all colors. Only by working to eliminate all police murder, not just a subset of it, can the lower classes ever hope to lift the police boot from their necks.

  2. Ken Takishi
    April 8, 2021 at 20:43

    “Systemic Nature of Racist Police Violence.”

    Would love the issue of police abuse to actual be about police abuse instead of imagined, unproven allegations of “racism.” Would it kill people to honestly deal with issues as they are… being that police abuse occurs across every single race. How the hell was George Floyds death a result of racist police? Got any evidence to actually prove that the abuse Floyd suffered was a result of racism? Good god identity politics is such a cancer to society.

    • Pat
      April 9, 2021 at 11:44

      Agreed, thank you.

  3. Evangelista
    April 8, 2021 at 20:39

    Ms Cohn,

    “Excited Dilerium” is a military term. It means “violent hysteria”, sometimes also called “going to pieces” . In war movies the over-excited person, usually a “green” soldier, is usually given a slap or a sock to bring him, back down. In Modfern Military Practice tackling and holding down until they calm down is “manual procedure”. The hold-down procedure is what Chauvin and fellows demonstrated in Minneapolis. It is not a lethal hold, it is not a defensive hold, it is the same as is done for epileptics who have violent seizures.

    Chauvin and his fellows were trying to help Floyd. Onlookers who misunderstood launched an equivalent to a lynch-mob reaction and ‘hung’ a city, while others went a-lynching in other cities. The Chauvin trial will demonstrate why the ‘slower but more orderly procedures off Due Process are preferable [Except, of course, in cases where you are family and can sell the corpse to a city of flutter-brained idiots for 27 million…

  4. John R
    April 8, 2021 at 17:14

    Thank you Marjorie Cohn and CN for this informative piece about the nature of our policing system.

  5. Mike Maddden
    April 8, 2021 at 16:16

    Always good to hear from international law expert Marjorie Cohn. I look forward to another article when the commission has completed its work.

  6. Didymos
    April 8, 2021 at 12:39

    I think the author here and I read different summaries of testimony. Almost everything in this article was countered in yesterdays expert testimony.

  7. robert e williamson jr
    April 8, 2021 at 12:07

    I MUST point put that I happen to believe Ms. Cohn is 100% correct here. My efforts were to prove she was correct by examining law enforcement behavior on whites and all others, period. I failed to make that clear.

    Unfortunately this behavior seems endemic in law enforcement across the nation. The same can be said for many prosecutors across our nation. This is out of control.

    We can address the courts being predisposed to treat the wealthy with kid gloves later.

    Thanks CN
    PEACE

    • DH Fabian
      April 8, 2021 at 18:14

      You can get a clearer picture if you examine that handling of cases by class.

  8. michael888
    April 8, 2021 at 09:45

    Chauvin is toast, he has been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. (Unlike the people in Manning’s videos of the July 12, 2007, Baghdad airstrike and the 2009 Granai airstrike in Afghanistan; there is no accountability for murders abroad).

    The problem of racism is unfortunately much broader than Cohn states. Black men make up 6% of Americans (white males 31%), yet that 6% accounts for most homicides and much violent crime. While most of the US’s roughly 15,000 intentional homicides are intra-racial, Blacks murdered 576, 514 and 566 whites in 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively. Whites murdered 264, 234 and 246 Blacks these same years (from ucr.fbi.gov › expanded-homicide-data-table-6 for the three most recent years released). Murders are objective, unlike “hate crimes” which are selectively enforced, often with media involvement.

    Obviously, most people of all races are good people, but violent crime is dangerously high in Black communities. This is an intractable problem. Many cities outlawed guns, but criminals can get guns. It is a felony for a convicted felon to have a gun, yet that gun may be necessary to keep him alive! Felons have difficulty getting and holding jobs, even if proven useful, as with fire-fighting in California. There are no opportunities for felons. The doubling of the incarceration rate by Biden’s Crime Bill, made things much worse; when one of three Black men is a felon in his lifetime, it is very different from one in 12, basically the whole community is affected. So what to do? Short-term punish violent crime severely, but back off on non-violent drug offenses, and arguably on “felon with a gun” unless used in a crime? Rehabilitation has almost always failed, from lack of aptitude to non-livable low wages; possibly create military roles since murder seems unaccountable abroad?

  9. Piotr Berman
    April 8, 2021 at 09:22

    Racial prejudice is a part of the problem, although it is a part of a wider prejudice that include poor people of any race. The training and supervision of police and prison guards is another component, as the author describes.

    I started to pay more attention to the related news after this case{

    hXXps://www.courthousenews.com/kern-county-whacked-hard-for-abuses/

    Of course, there is also a lot of unnecessary brutality, again a combination of totally inadequate training and low empathy (prejudice). Recent case in January, Rochester NY, involved a 9-year old girls who ran out of her apartment when police came, shouting “I want my father” (not on the scene). She was caught, tackled to the ground (snow), handcuffed behind her back, then she resisted being put in the police cars by blocking the door with her feet so she was sprayed in the face with a pepper sprayed and got help for a very painful irritation after more than 20 minutes (when ambulance arrived, couldn’t they wash her face with snow?).

  10. robert e williamson jr
    April 7, 2021 at 21:52

    For what it’s worth.

    Depending on what what rural counties in which one resides there are counties nationwide that are predominately white that prove what Ms. Cohn reports. I know, I live in one and have knowledge of the same conditions in other counties. Yes I am white skinned.

    If you are poor, white and have a family history of being, we will call it “from the wrong side of the tracks” then you best mind your P & Q’s. If you cross that invisible behavioral line and question the law you will not be forgotten by them.

    So be it! I ain’t scared.

    Excitable delirium does exist but as with most of lazy spoiled society and many too many law enforcement officers who fit the previous profile, everyone seems to seek only the easy answer that supports/benefits them. Law enforcement chooses to use the term to their benefit and their benefit only. When it’s the perp it is behavior officers claim make the perp so dangerous. Well that is pig spit! We all know George went to the catatonic side behaviorally and Chauvin’s only two choices here are that he lost it and murdered the man or he did it purposely.

    Adults and many young have functional mental grasps of right and wrong. The behavior by Chauvin as seen clearly everywhere speaks for it;s self. I will make this one assumption at this point, Chauvin’s fellow officers here must fit into two categories, they either fear the man or they support him. These individuals by profession can have no other reason for not intervening . They helped Chauvin kill because they failed to perform their duty by stopping a crime in process. They assisted in killing Floyd by neglecting their duty.

    Watch Chauvin closely, you witness one man murder another. The same as if he had shot him in the back while he lay there, except in this case the act is greatly more personal. He had him and he wasn’t going to let him go.

    Seems to me that excitable delirium ruled the day here and the result was the cold blooded murder of one man by another man who knew exactly what he was doing and I believe , who enjoyed doing it. What sane person would murder some on live stream? Unless that is Chauvin’s hate for blacks is so viscous it rendered excitably delirious.

    Thanks CN
    PEACE

  11. robert e williamson jr
    April 7, 2021 at 18:46

    If you haven’t figured this out yet I admit having a problem with authority figures. Some in law enforcement rate the top of my list and I have the reputation to go along with my beliefs as a result having lived in the same county all but two years of my life and telling law enforcement when I figure they are out of line.

    Never been convicted of a felony charge in my 72 years. The county sheriff don’t like me and I don’t like him. It gets much worse when trying to deal all the town law enforcement officers as well.

    No reason to bring race into the equation because this county is by far, the percentage being in the 90’s is white ran by whites and for most farmers and members of the county seats U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

    Things have changed greatly since the wild days of the late 1960’s and even wilder days of the early 1970’s when pot arrived in mass to the county. I’ve seen it all with all white, red-neck cops brutalizing poor whites. Part of the reason the number of blacks is still very low in the county.

    And I keep tabs on just who the really bad actors are.

    I have a theory about law enforcement officers and their blue line mentality. If one is a member of law enforcement and he witnesses another officer breaking procedure and the law he needs to go public with it. Other wise by law he can be considered an accessory after the fact. Only legal honest representatives of law enforcement should be allowed to be protected by the thin blue line, not law breakers, which is not the current practice.

    Now for excitable delirium. It sure as hell does exist and it was involved in the George Floyd case and officer an officer Chauvin was suffering from it and never needs to wear a badge again.

    Thanks CN
    PEACE

    • evelync
      April 8, 2021 at 13:03

      Thanks, robert e williamson jr, for your thoughtful comments which I enjoyed reading!

      re: “If you haven’t figured this out yet I admit having a problem with authority figures.”

      Based on the fair mindedness of your comments – sorry, I don’t think you have a problem with authority figures.
      I think you have a problem with wrongdoing by authority figures and perhaps, based on experience, you have an expectation that most people who are given authority with a badge or a title or a privilege of some sort are inclined to abuse that authority…there are others who act more maturely and responsibly, although unfortunately in this culture at this time and place those people are far too rare.

      The ones who act badly are often rewarded. The ones who courageously stand up for what’s right – including the whistleblowers are punished.

      In this case the evidence caught on tape was just too damaging and the recent shift in our culture to push back en masse against this institutionalized crime provided the swell of opinion necessary to hold the cop accountable….to a point.

      For, as Marjorie Cohn’s expert analysis explains, the effort to use the old bad apple trick to save that corrupted institution and the rest of the wrongdoers from having to face their own criminal mindset, come to grips with it, accept reform or quit serving as a peace officer (which they are not and have never been trained to be).

      I enjoyed reading what you wrote. You’re a good writer.
      You draw the reader in a similar way, I think, to the great Charles Bukowski.

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