The death of George Floyd has prompted protests, riots, destruction, and a slew of bills aimed at “reforming” the police. Very little good has come from any of it, with murder and violent crime rates skyrocketing in major cities across America. Using this singular incident as the rallying cry for the passage of all sorts of police reform bills is a mistake on many levels—nothing in any of these bills would have prevented George Floyd’s death.
One officer put his knee on George Floyds neck for almost nine minutes. He was convicted of second-degree murder for doing that. What new law would prevent that? It was already not allowed. Three other officers await a trial for their role in the incident as well. The death of George Floyd was tragic, the video was incredibly hard to watch, but the case was so unique that it does not lend itself to a lot of lessons to take away from it.
There are cases that do show the case for policing reform, and we can improve police training to address those. But this isn’t one of them. The anti-police crowd’s rush to pass everything from the elimination of qualified immunity to banning chokeholds (which police don’t use) and vascular neck restraints (which police sometimes use and are rarely lethal) as a result of this particular incident, where the offending officer was convicted, seem to be exploiting George Floyd’s death for an anti-policing agenda—an agenda that was in place long before the events of last year.
One policy that has gotten some attention lately is a duty to intervene. Seeing that three other officers in Minneapolis were charged in George Floyd’s death, the prosecutors there must feel this already exists in statute in some form, even if it is not phrased specifically that way. So again, this doesn’t seem to be a remedy that would have changed that outcome, but is it a worthwhile reform?
Police officers already have a moral obligation to intervene when excessive force is being used and they know this. They took an oath to uphold the laws of the state in which they serve and the Constitution, and that includes when the violator is wearing a badge. But having a moral obligation to intervene is different than a statutory obligation to intervene, which can have deadly consequences.
Police work is complicated, and information is often a collective endeavor amongst officers on any particular scene. When one officer yells “GUN!” the other officers will draw their firearms in response to the information they received, without necessarily seeing the gun yet themselves, and then process what is unfolding in front of them. These various pieces of collective information speed response to potentially deadly scenarios.
A statutory duty to intervene would require that an officer use the information in front of them alone in determining whether or not the force they are observing their fellow officer use is excessive right now (a process that can take attorneys and judges weeks or months to decide in the comfort of a courthouse). They will be required to intervene with what is sure to be only partial information.
Imagine that as a police officer, you receive a radio call for a violent domestic disturbance. Your zone partner radios in that she is on scene, you are a minute away. The first officer hears screaming inside and radios that she is going in, knowing you will be there shortly. You arrive and run through the door and see your partner on top of a male subject who is face down on the ground. She is striking him in the back of the head with her baton.
Knowing the head strikes are deadly force and seeing the prone subject being hit, you tackle the female officer to stop her from hitting him again. You do this despite knowing your partner is a competent professional who you have never known to mistreat anyone. But you can’t wait—because you could face criminal charges if you don’t intervene immediately.
After tackling her, she screams “No, he’s got my gun!” You turn to see the suspect roll over and present the gun he earlier wrestled away from your partner (which is why she was hitting him), and he shoots you both dead.
Politicians and academics can pontificate all day long about bringing “an era in which police brutality occurred with impunity” to an end (though no such era has existed in our lifetimes), but it is the cop on the street that is stuck with the mess the politicians create with feel-good policies. A moral duty to intervene has always existed, and it can emphasized in training, but mandating it through law has very dangerous consequences.