Those 8 minutes and 15 seconds are indelibly etched into our minds. That’s at least how long police officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd’s neck, leaning with his entire body weight, visibly grinding Floyd’s face into the pavement.
Chauvin didn’t stop when Mr. Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe, or when he told police they were killing him, or even after witnesses begged police to check his pulse.
Mr. Floyd had just gone to the store to buy cigarettes. He died in front of us, livestreamed on Facebook. The spot where he was murdered outside Cup Foods in southeast Minneapolis is now a memorial.
A trip to the convenience store should never end this way.
Yet all too often, something as routine as a trip to the corner store ends exactly this way for People of Color in Minnesota and America. Black people have been killed while listening to music, sleeping, jogging, walking, driving and shopping.
One in every 1,000 Black men in the U.S. can expect to be killed by police.
Police kill Black Americans at more than twice the rate of white Americans. One in every 1,000 Black men in the U.S. can expect to be killed by police.
The racial disparities go far beyond police violence, seeping into every corner of our criminal legal system, from how Black kids are treated for curfew violations and “loitering,” to sentencing and probation violations. For example, in Minnesota, Black people are 5.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, even though they use and sell drugs at about the same rate.
How did we get here?
The history is long, complicated and ugly. It’s based in the racism baked into our country’s founding that still permeates every corner of society, especially our criminal-legal system. Here's an abridged version:
The nation’s first police force is created in Charleston to apprehend enslaved people. Soon other Colonies follow with slave patrols of their own to maintain dominance and the racist social order.
Over-policing in Black and Brown neighborhoods gets a foothold thanks to the “War on Crime” and the presidential commissions that grow out of it. These commissions acknowledge the root causes of crime and their connection to community health, but instead of recommending programs to combat poverty and support communities, they focus on punitive programs, especially expanding the size and power of police forces. Militarization starts with the first SWAT team after the Watts riots.
The “War on Drugs” doubles down on criminalizing societal problems such as poverty and a lack of equitable access to schools by passing punitive laws like mandatory minimums that still pack our prisons today. A since-disproven theory that policing low-level offenses would prevent serious crimes gives law enforcement too much discretion – packed with biases and racism – on who and how to police.
Three-strike laws, billions funneled into building even more prisons, and police placed in our schools mark this decade. A now-discredited theory about a generation of “superpredators” gains traction, leading to disparity-riddled life sentences for teens.
Post 9/11, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security pump billions into law enforcement “counterterrorism” efforts, creating a surveillance state. Now we have cameras everywhere, fatally flawed facial recognition technology and cell phone tracking.
Today, these punitive approaches to policing continue, despite growing evidence they simply do not work. When police in New York City called for a work slowdown, major crimes did not increase – they decreased! In many states, incarceration rates are going down – and so is the crime rate. These facts fly in the face of everything we’ve based our criminal-legal system on for a half century.
It’s past time to overhaul our racist system of policing. But a number of factors stand in the way:
Lack of Accountability
Only 1.5% of complaints filed against Minneapolis police resulted in suspensions, terminations or demotions.
In Minnesota, it’s nearly impossible for an officer to lose a license. In the last 20 years, the state Peace Officer Standards and Training Board has revoked the licenses of only 83 police officers, Fox reports. That’s out of more than 11,000 officers.
It’s also nearly impossible to bring real discipline. Only about 1.5% of complaints filed against Minneapolis police resulted in suspensions, terminations or demotions between 2013 and 2019, according to CNN. When police do get fired in Minnesota, about half the time, arbitrators give them their jobs back.
Prosecutors – who work closely with police on cases – rarely bring charges against officers for brutality. When they do, our state law makes it hard to hold police accountable.
Adversarial police culture
Police culture is too often characterized by a “warrior culture” that creates an “us v. them” mentality. Cadets are trained to check their biases and use force only when necessary, but then they go out with veterans who see a threat everywhere that should be put down with maximum force.
Deeply entrenched police unions make it difficult to hold officers accountable for brutality, to discipline or fire police, and to limit the role and power of officers. They lobby against reforms that would lower the disparities in our criminal-legal system, shift funding to community-based efforts or help decrease mass incarceration.
Between 2015 and 2019, state legislators proposed and failed to pass more than a dozen police reform bills. They finally passed a bill this year, but the reforms were so minor compared to everyone's hopes, one advocate called them "weak sauce."
A Lack of good data
Our federal government doesn’t even know how many people the police kill every year. Locally, police data is stored in ways that are difficult to analyze or access, something the ACLU-MN has sued over.
Citizen Oversight lacks power
Citizen review commissions often have to include police on their boards. They must rely on police for investigations of police and can only make recommendations, which are rarely followed.
Police don’t live where they work
Only 8% of Minneapolis police live in the city, compared to the national average of 40%, according to Star Tribune figures. They choose to self-segregate, living in largely white, largely affluent areas, rather than investing in or knowing the people and neighborhoods they police.
The TERRIBLE cost
195 people killed by police in Minneapolis since 2000.
$25m spent on misconduct settlements since 2003.
$193m spent on law enforcement a year.
The human cost of years of racialized policing is incalculable. In Minnesota alone, police have killed 195 people since the year 2000, nearly half people of color. Black people especially are disproportionately fined, arrested, charged, convicted, given heavier sentences and have higher rates of probation revocation. How do we account for the cost to families and communities when our racialized system of “justice” and mass incarceration steals Black men away at startling rates?
In monetary terms, it’s shocking to think we are paying for this. Minneapolis alone spends $193 million a year on law enforcement. The city has paid out more than $25 million on misconduct settlements since 2003.
For far too long, our leaders have lacked the political will to spend less on police and more on the community services that keep everyone safe and healthy.
Just think if some of that giant police budget could instead go toward services such as housing, mental health care and substance use treatment that help people and make our communities safer.
And what if the remaining police force – whether in Minneapolis or across the state – experienced true and meaningful reform?
It’s time to act.
Everyone in every community should be able to jog, take a walk, listen to music, sleep in their own homes and visit their corner store – without fear of getting killed by police.