At Derek Chauvin’s trial, a dangerous code of silence is crumbling
By Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci,
Ben Crump is a civil rights attorney based in Tallahassee, Fla. Antonio M. Romanucci is a founding partner of Romanucci & Blandin LLC, a Chicago-based law firm. Crump is lead attorney and Romanucci co-counsel representing George Floyd’s family.
Gianna Floyd’s innocent but prophetic words that her daddy changed the world become more profoundly true every day. What is playing out in a Minneapolis courtroom is the latest aftershock of George Floyd’s death, with the impact likely to reach beyond the future of former police officer Derek Chauvin — and possibly create a significant crack in the “blue shield.” This practice of officers covering for other officers regularly complicates police misconduct cases and makes it intimidating or downright dangerous for officers to speak truthfully about such behavior.
In riveting testimony this week, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said that Chauvin’s pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck long after Floyd was subdued, on the ground and handcuffed behind his back violated department policies, training, ethics and values. Last summer, Arradondo had called Chauvin’s actions murder and fired Chauvin from the force shortly after Floyd’s death. It is significant that a police chief admitted that Floyd deserved to be treated with respect and humanity despite the allegation that he had passed a phony $20 bill.
Additionally, another Minneapolis police veteran, Lt. Richard Zimmerman, testified last week that Chauvin’s use of force was “totally unnecessary” and “uncalled for.” This was from one of Chauvin’s brethren.
This condemnation by high-ranking officials and fellow officers is noteworthy not only for its rarity but also because it sends a powerful message to law enforcement nationwide. Could this be the moment when police unions’ vaunted code of silence cracks like an egg, never to be restored?
We’re collectively witnessing a triumph of truth. The blue line has been crossed, from the top down, in a testament to justice — signaling to officers of lesser rank the importance of speaking out against wrongdoing. In addition to Chauvin, three other police officers surrounded George Floyd as he lay on the ground. Had one of them intervened, Floyd might still be alive. The recent testimony provides hope that officers nationwide may increasingly be held accountable for their actions and that those officers who speak the truth about their peers’ misbehavior will be heard and heeded, rather than panned and punished. These important steps give rank-and-file officers room to come forward when they see something they know isn’t right.
This sounds simple, but it is a sharp departure from past practice. Instead of rewarding officers courageous enough to tell the truth about bad behavior, law enforcement agencies typically have punished them, often costing them their careers.
The case of officers Daniel Echeverria and Shannon Spalding in Chicago is one such example. These whistleblowers uncovered corruption within the force and exposed a sergeant who shook down drug dealers and pinned false cases on people who couldn’t pay. Instead of being rewarded, Echeverria and Spalding were called “rats” and demoted. They were told that no one would have their back in the field. The pair eventually sued the city and received justice in the civil courts.
This pattern has played out in city after city, state after state, year after year. In Auburn, Ala., Officer Justin Hanners was fired in 2013 after expressing concerns that police were required to meet a quota of 100 stops per month and issue tickets to generate money, regardless of whether those police actions were necessary. The city determined that it did not have to protect whistleblowing employees, causing severe financial hardship for Hanners.
Police unions, which historically have defended even the most egregious officer behavior, have reinforced this culture of silence. This blue shield of denial has built a level of tolerance that makes it nearly impossible to root out bad apples. It has ensured that efforts to recast the relationship between law enforcement and the people they serve and protect would go nowhere. And it fuels the deep distrust between communities of color and police — a direct outgrowth of the lack of accountability.
The Chauvin trial and the testimony by his superior officers condemning his actions mark a pivotal moment for policing nationwide — one that we hope will be acknowledged and embraced by top brass in every police department in the country.
The course of history was altered by President Ronald Reagan’s admonition that Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall,” changing the cause of freedom in Eastern Europe. Police officials across our country must tear down their own wall: the blue shield of blind protectionism that has vexed good, safe and constitutional policing for years.
It is time for truth — and to protect those who expose the truth.
Read more: James Hohmann: Policing is not really on trial in Minnesota. That’s too bad. The Post’s View: The blue wall of silence has broken in the Chauvin trial, but that doesn’t absolve the police Eugene Robinson: Black Americans all got Derek Chauvin’s message. Loud and clear. Paul Butler: This new ruling could let the suspect in George Floyd’s killing go free