George Floyd: Observations on a Recurring Tragedy

By Matthew P. Daley

It is a movie that those in my age demographic (mid to late 70s) have seen too many times. These include, inter alia, the murders of civil rights workers, the killing of Emmit Hill, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the beating of Rodney King, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and most recently the brutal murder of George Floyd by three white and one Hmong police officer. We know the general outlines of the script, this time staring George Floyd and Derek Chauvin. Outrage, followed by protests, sometimes violent, looting, followed by an investigation to identify and prosecute the guilty parties and sometimes by a study commission to identify the root causes of African American grievances and corrective steps.  A Hollywood version will likely appear as a “docudrama” mixing fact, fiction and myth.

Nonetheless, there are differences which merit note. At the outset, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones, there is a powerful video and audio record of the killing of Floyd. This led to an unusual, perhaps unprecedented national consensus that Floyd was murdered. Importantly, unlike many, if not most, police killings, this event did not unfold in a few seconds, but in nearly nine minutes as Floyd pleaded for his life to no avail. Another result of the video documentation is that there has been very little reference to aspects of Floyd’s background that might be exploited to suggest that “he had it coming.”  Even the differences between the Minnesota Medical Examiner’s findings and those of the Medial Examiner hired by Floyd’s family struck most as minor.

Minnesota authorities reacted relatively quickly to Floyd’s murder, firing the officers involved and after a fast investigation bringing criminal charges.  This did not suffice to avert, contain or control protests which spread to many cities in the US. Muddled messaging from Washington did not help state and local authorities whose police forces needed to deal with mostly legitimate protesters interspersed with old fashioned looters and increasingly sophisticated agitators who would bring down our political system.

Importantly, the ranks of the protestors were not solely African-American. In contrast to the early days of the Civil Rights movement, whites in large numbers joined to pursue the ideals of justice and police accountability. One June 6, I witnessed a protest march in a small Eastern Shore town in an area that had sent more than a few of its sons to fight for the Confederacy. Most, perhaps 75% of the protestors, were white. This may be an appropriate point to note that relatively little attention has been paid to excessive police violence against white Americans, thus imbuing the issue with a strong racial cast that might not be fully accurate. (The first instance of police brutality I witnessed happened in New Orleans in the early 1960s when a few white “happy drunks” on Bourbon Street were savagely beaten prior to arrest for the crime of not responding to police orders with sufficient alacrity.)

The mass demonstrations will grow smaller in the weeks to come, and we will be left again to address the paths forward. If reports of individuals traveling to troubled cities and actively seeking to foment violence are correct, it is safe to say the FBI will go after these people with enthusiasm and effectiveness. This I believe, is a minor issue compared to systemic racism in the judicial system, an admittedly complicated topic that will take some time to unravel. But as a starter, I would point to our laws criminalizing marijuana use. Whites and blacks report using marijuana in about the same proportions, but blacks are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana violations and when arrested, far more likely to be found guilty and to receive prison sentences. I believe we should decriminalize use of this substance and void past convictions. Other aspects of systemic racism in the judicial system are beyond the ken of this commentary.

Police accountability is a more pressing near-term issue. Technology will help, but it will not be a panacea. The body cameras worn by the Derek Chauvin and his colleagues did not prevent George Floyd’s killing even as they will help secure convictions in court. They likely have contributed to police restraint in other instances. Body cameras will also help police-community relations because false accusations against police can be disproved.

National standards for arrest techniques, use of firearms and use of “less lethal” equipment would be helpful. In some jurisdictions, it is exceedingly difficult to fire bad cops, in no small measure because of contracts negotiated by police unions which may and do donate funds to the political class that oversees the negotiations. In some instances (and Maryland is one) the legislature (whose members may receive donations from government sector unions) has enacted protections for police that make accountability more difficult and slower to realize.  The lack of transparency in police disciplinary records that flows from union contracts, other regulations, traditions or law makes it possible for an officer discharged for excessive violence to be hired by another police department, even in adjoining jurisdictions. It would seem that this issue in particular needs to be addressed by the Democrat Party whose elected officials control most of our large cities where police misconduct looms large as the problem dividing the nation.

Qualified immunity for police that is enshrined in federal law is probably well overdue for a careful appraisal. One scholar has suggested a reappraisal of the system of payouts for police misconduct in which officers are immune from the financial impact of misconduct. One possible approach would be to make the police departments budget for insurance to cover payouts for police misconduct. It is argued that this would have a similar effect to hospitals paying premiums for malpractice insurance, which motivates hospitals to identify which physicians should be declined the privilege of practicing there. These and other ideas should be on the agenda.

A brief coda: part of the culture wars in America today involves the rights and responsibilities of citizens in their own protection. Many Americans are unaware that government has no obligation to compensate them financially if their homes or business are looted or destroyed by arson.  While it received little attention from the mainstream media, it was gratifying to learn of the descendants of the Hmong who fought alongside American forces in Laos in the Second Indochina War and then made their way to Minneapolis to live the American dream. They armed themselves to protect their homes and businesses. A nearby police station was abandoned and burned, and the police were nowhere to be seen, but these recent immigrants and their offspring did the right thing. They protected and largely preserved their community from the looters while supporting those who protested against unjust police conduct and, in the process, gave a worthy example for the rest of us.   

In addition to decades of service in the US Army and the Foreign Service, Matt Daley was a Special Agent of the US Secret Service for five years. During that time, he was involved in the full range of protection assignments including both U.S. and foreign protectees as well as in the US Secret Service criminal law enforcement functions. In the latter capacity, he participated in well over a hundred felony arrests all of which resulted in guilty pleas or convictions.