Derek Chauvin: Despite murder charge, FBI inquiry could be more serious for ex-officers in George Floyd killing, experts say

Law enforcement officers accused of killing people often end up on lesser charges, experts say – but potential federal charges of violating Mr Floyd's civil rights could have even more serious consequences for Derek Chauvin and his former colleagues

Graig Graziosi
Saturday 30 May 2020 18:15 BST
George Floyd: Minneapolis protests take over the city

The former police officer who killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes has been arrested and charged with third degree murder and manslaughter.

Derek Chauvin, who was fired by the Minneapolis Police Department along with three other officers present at the death of Mr Floyd, is one of the few instances in which an officer involved in the death of a suspect is actually charged with a crime.

Dr Jennifer Cobbina, assistant professor and Criminologist at Michigan State University, said that as infrequently as officers who kill are charged with a crime, they are even less frequently actually convicted.

"When officers are charged regardless of what the charge is, they generally are not convicted. If they are convicted it's usually when the incident is incredibly egregious, which obviously is the case with George Floyd," Ms Cobbina said.

But even a conviction doesn't necessarily mean justice will be served. As Ms Cobbina notes, a conviction for police officers rarely results in significant sentences.

"If they are convicted they're rarely sentenced to a term of imprisonment or certainly not a long term of imprisonment," she said.

The reason? Juries and judges tend to go easy on police officers.

This is reflective in the overall public perception of police officers in the United States. Despite the widespread protests since the death of Mr Floyd, police regularly rank high on the list of civic authority figures most trusted by the American public.

According to a Pew study released in 2019, 79 per cent of Americans think police officers "care about me or people like me", 74 per cent believe they provide "fair and accurate information to the public" and 79 per cent believe they "handle resources responsibly."

In the rare occasion when an officer is actually charged with a crime after killing someone, they often claim they felt their lives were at risk and thus lethal force was justified.

"Usually the officers will just say they feared for their lives and they get away with it. Juries and judges tend to give police officers a lot of leeway given their jobs. So unfortunately what we see is a typical pattern taking place time and time again," Ms Cobbina said.

The data backs up Ms Cobbina's claims.

Dr Phillip Stinson, a Criminologist at Bowling Green State University, is a former cop and has been tracking police shootings that result in deaths and the ensuing consequences - or lack thereof - since 2005.

While Mr Stinson's data looks at deaths caused by shootings - meaning Mr Floyd's death technically won't join his data set - it does illuminate how often police are actually charged, convicted and looks at the severity of their punishments.

"By my count, since the beginning of 2005, there have been 110 non-federal sworn law enforcement officers with the general powers of arrest - police officers, deputy sheriffs, state troopers, etc. - who have been arrested for murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting throughout the United States," he said in an email to The Independent. "Of those 110 officers, to date only 42 have been convicted of a crime resulting from the on-duty shooting."

Of those 42, 18 pleaded guilty, 24 were convicted by juries, and none were convicted by bench trials.

According to Mr Stinson's data, when an officer is actually convicted, it's often on a lesser charge.

For example, only five officers tracked by Mr Stinson's data have been convicted of murder. Of those five officers, they were incarcerated for times that ranged from 81 months to 192 months in prison, with an average length prison sentence of 144.6 months.

"As to the other officers, 11 were convicted of manslaughter, five were convicted of voluntary manslaughter, six were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, three were convicted of official misconduct, two were convicted of reckless homicide, three were convicted of negligent homicide, five were convicted of federal criminal deprivation of civil rights - including four officers whose murder convictions were overturned - one was convicted of aggravated assault, and one was convicted of reckless discharge of a firearm," Mr Stinson said.

In addition to the public's sympathy for the police, there's another factor that contributes to the extremely small number of murder charges faced by officers; murder is a tough charge to make stick.

Dr David Thomas, a professor of forensic psychology at Florida Golf Coast University and a 20-year retired police officer said that murder charges are extremely difficult to levy against police officers because investigators must establish premeditation.

"It's very difficult [to charge someone with murder] because you have to prove there's premeditation, and in this instance you'd never be able to prove there was premeditation. It's very easy to show there was indifference to life, however," Mr Thomas said.

Mr Chauvin was charged with third degree murder Friday, which - in Minnesota - is the killing of another person without premeditation through dangerous acts "with no regard to human life."

He was also charged on second degree manslaughter. If convicted of the murder, Minnesota's sentencing guidelines recommend 12 and a half years in prison, with a maximum of 25 years possible. If he's convicted on the manslaughter charges, it would add an additional four, per the state's recommendation.

According to the US Justice Department, the FBI is currently investigating whether the officers violated Mr Floyd's civil rights during the arrest and subsequent killing. If charged and found guilty of violating Mr Floyd's civil rights, Mr Chauvin could face a much greater penalty.

"In the federal system, when somebody's constitutional rights have been violated and there's a death that occurs, then the feds take the case," Mr Thomas said. "A Civil rights violation is far greater and carries a lot of impact. And so if they can get those charges, it's easier to convict an officer than on murder."

Under federal law, anyone found guilty of depriving someone of their constitutional rights resulting in their deaths can face up to life in prison or be sentenced to death.

Findings from the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's office found "no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation" and ruled that "underlying health conditions" contributed to Mr Floyd's death. Mr Floyd's family is pursuing an independent autopsy.

While Mr Chauvin has been taken into custody and charged, the other three officers involved in Mr Floyd's death have not been charged or arrested, though it may be only a matter of time before that changes.

Video footage from the incident showed that in addition to Mr Chauvin pressing his knee onto Mr Floyd's neck, two other officers were sitting on his back and legs.

"Charges will be brought against them. They have a duty to protect. Mr Floyd was in their custody, he was all of their responsibility. If this is like any other case, you are charged with what the original person is charged with. So you may see them all receive the same charges," Mr Thomas said. "Public servants also have what's called malfeasance of duty and there's no doubt that they didn't do their jobs."

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