Legal Experts Not Optimistic Chauvin Case Will Transform Policing

Brandon Garrett and James Coleman share insights with local, national media

Law professors James Coleman and Brandon Garrett
Law professors James Coleman and Brandon Garrett

Duke University legal experts were not overly optimistic the conviction of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd will spur major police reform.

Law professor Brandon Garrett told The Los Angeles Times that the case did provide a greater awareness of "where and why policing happens." This ranges from how police interact with the public and how officers handle minor infractions, which as in the Floyd case, can turn into a terrible situation.

“Holding one officer accountable, whether civilly or criminally, doesn’t fix the system,” he said. “Criminal accountability after the fact doesn’t prevent egregious and improper police use of force.”

Fellow Duke Law professor James Coleman, who heads the university's Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, told WRAL that it will take more than Chauvin's conviction to spark broad criminal justice reform.

"I think that it requires courageous leaders from the governor to the attorney general to the mayors and the police chiefs, and if they aren’t willing to have honest discussions about what the problems are in the system, then nothing is going to change," Coleman said.

"I’ve heard some people say, 'Well, you know, most people didn’t know what Black people have known for hundreds of years.' That’s not true. Everybody knew what was going on. Everybody knew what the police had been doing to Black people and Black men. They just didn’t care," he said. "I think that the question is, is this going to make us care? It could, but it’s going to require a change on behalf of a lot of leaders who have been indifferent in the past."

Regarding the case, in which a jury convicted Chauvin Tuesday of murder in the May 2020 death of Floyd, Coleman said Chauvin's defense attorney, Eric Nelson, made some strong points. But, Coleman told NBC, they didn’t match the evidence, and videos shown in court probably didn’t sit well with the diverse jury.

"In an all-white suburb, his argument may have resonated, where the jurors view the police as their friends," he said.

Garrett praised the work of prosecutors.

"The prosecution did a good job of making it very simple," Garrett, also faculty director of the school's Wilson Center for Science and Justice, told The LA Times. "When you watch that video and you see that Floyd was held for nine-and-a-half minutes, during which he posed no threat to anyone and was fully restrained — that's simply not policing."

Garrett also spoke to CNN about why it’s difficult to convict a police officer. These include laws that protect an officer’s use of force, police union protections and juries that often to side with police, according to the story.

Based on these and other factors, Garrett said police officers who stand trial for murder or manslaughter have advantages that make a criminal conviction less likely.

"In this country, many uses of force are not crimes, criminal charges are rare, and we've seen grand juries decline to indict in high-profile cases," Garrett told CNN. "Unlike the vast bulk of criminal cases that result in convictions through guilty pleas, many police officers do not plead guilty and they are successful in trial."

For more media stories featuring Duke faculty, visit the Duke News site.