In Ferguson, the top prosecutor’s refusal to charge officer Darren Wilson in 2014 led to weeks of protests as a grand jury sifted through evidence in the case before declining to bring charges. In Minneapolis, it took three days of protests for Chauvin to be arrested and charged. Some protesters set several buildings on fire, including the Third Precinct headquarters, where Chauvin worked. And as they did after protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, police responded to protests of Floyd’s death with tear gas and rubber bullets, at one point spraying tear gas out of a moving vehicle onto an apparently peaceful crowd. Several protesters, as well as some journalists, were arrested. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz mobilized the National Guard, and after Chauvin was arrested, Frey set an 8 pm curfew for the weekend. President Donald Trump, as Obama did after Gray’s killing in Baltimore, called protesters who looted stores “thugs” — though unlike Obama, Trump also called for them to be shot.
In fact, Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson ushered in an era of police reform that saw federal and local governments invest heavily in police training, including on racial bias, and in technology like body cameras that officials promised would bring about accountability. Floyd’s death was yet another reminder that those reforms have failed.
“This is happening after five years of being told, ‘Don’t worry, we’re getting the training,’” said Vitale. “The de-escalation training, the anti-bias training, the mindfulness training … why aren’t things getting any better?”
As evidence mounts of the failures of police reform, some departments and unions are beginning to embrace calls for individual accountability for “bad cops” who they continue to insist are not representatives of their institutions as a whole. But while protesters continue to call for individual officers to be arrested and prosecuted, there is a growing recognition that police misconduct will continue, no matter how many reforms politicians enact, as long as policing exists at the present scale.
“They are desperate. They see that they’ve got a major credibility problem and that there are active campaigns to take their money away,” said Vitale. “This whole idea of jailing killer cops as a way to fix policing is completely naive and misguided. Even when they are convicted, as rare as that is, there’s really no evidence that this feeds back into changes in how policing is done.”
Reducing the size of police departments by curbing their resources, he and others argue, will be far more effective at reducing police violence than any costly effort to improve the police. “These ‘defund and fund alternatives’ kinds of movement are much more threatening to police chiefs, which is why I think they are bending over backwards to try to get out ahead of this thing,” said Vitale. “People in the movement are shifting: They are not calling for body cameras and more training. More and more people are like, ‘Fuck that, take their money away.’”