Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is charged with intentionally and fatally obstructing the breathing of George Floyd.
I believe Chauvin should be charged with first degree murder. If the current second degree murder charge was upgraded, and Chauvin then agreed to plead guilty to second degree murder with up to 40 years imprisonment, that would probably be the best outcome for everyone involved.
As for Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Keung, the police officers who complied with Chauvin’s instructions to restrain Floyd’s legs or who just stood by without stopping Chauvin, justice should be tempered with mercy.
Lane was a rookie officer on the job for only four days when this tragedy occurred. Lane twice suggested that Chauvin, the officer in charge, release his knee pressure on Floyd’s neck suggestions Chauvin ignored.
Nevertheless, Chauvin’s fellow officers should have forcefully stopped Chauvin, even if they didn’t realize Chauvin intended to use lethal force. But in unwritten police culture officers are expected to follow orders, to not “snitch” on other officers or to otherwise challenge police conduct they may question. Remember the ordeals Frank Serpico endured when this police officer exposed widespread brutality and corruption in the New York City police department several decades ago.
Minneapolis police officers are now required to forcibly intervene and to report to the Department when they see other officers use excessive force. If this policy had been in effect when Floyd was arrested, perhaps the other officers would have done more to prevent Floyd’s death. The dilemmas police officers often face aren’t limited to policing.
The majority of people protesting police wrongdoing are protesting peacefully. But they have done little to stop the ones who are wreaking havoc or to offer assistance to police officers who may become victims of violent attacks, COVID-19 exposure, and even false accusations as they try to stop the mayhem and to arrest those responsible for it. Peaceful protesters have often displayed the same kind of misguided nonintervention that Thao, Lane and Keung displayed — while also demanding Minnesota follow a “lock ‘em up, throw away the key” mindset regarding these officers.
I suspect that many conscientious nursing home staff who don’t mistreat residents can empathize with Thao, Lane and Keung. Fear of reprisals, sometimes violent ones, frequently prevent ethical intervention by many conscientious but fearful caregivers when they witness abuse or neglect of residents.
During my childhood and adolescent years, I witnessed cruelty to animals. On one occasion I sadly observed two schoolmates beat frogs to death with baseball bats. I did nothing to stop them. I felt badly when school bullies tormented weaker teens, but I didn’t intervene.
In 1963, when I was a Florida State University freshman, I watched courageous white students picket off-campus restaurants that wouldn’t serve the few black students who had integrated the university after FSU complied with a federal court desegregation mandate. My fears stopped me from joining the picket line after observing students getting pelted with eggs by other students, while a Tallahassee police officer quipped, “I didn’t see that.”
After completing my sophomore year, I took a summertime job as a Foxboro (Mass. State Hospital attendant. My fears kept me from doing anything to stop the cruelty I witnessed. After work, I would drown my conscience with alcohol so I could sleep at night.
I finally experienced an awakening when, on June 6, 1969, my first letter to the editor, describing patient abuse at Foxboro, was published in the Quincy Patriot Ledger. With the support of several current and former employees, a sympathetic state legislator, and Patriot Ledger editorials and news coverage, a legislative investigation resulted in some reforms at Foxboro and the resignation of some of the attendants who abused patients. All this initiated my new life as an advocate for vulnerable people, animals, and our environment.
During the 51 years Canandaigua has been my home, I, too, have made my share of poor choices. I ask God to forgive my shortcomings and to help me be the man that God, Jesus and my guardian angels want me to be.
Like Thao, Lane and Keung, I have committed sins of omission. So have most of us. I understand the police chief’s decision to fire them for dereliction of duty, especially when this dereliction contributed to Floyd’s death. However, I believe justice should be tempered with mercy in the handling of the criminal charges against them.
I would prefer that community service and opportunities to make amends to God, to Floyd’s family and to society, rather than lengthy imprisonment, be sought by the state of Minnesota in its prosecution of these three officers. And their predicaments should remind all of us to let our consciences be our guide in the way we live our lives, and to not be afraid to do what is right even when silence would appear to be the easier path to follow.
Joel Freedman is an advocate for animals and vulnerable people.