Each Case Brings Us Closer to Ending Qualified Immunity for Killer Cops

Convicted ex-cop Derek Chauvin seemed genuinely stunned to learn he actually will be held responsible for the murder of a Black man

For an instant, Black America and Derek Chauvin aligned in a singular emotion: disbelief. It flashed in Chauvin’s eyes just as the weight of decades of unjust acquittals was shifted from our shoulders onto the murderer’s, where it had always belonged. The convicted killer cop couldn’t conceive that a jury would dare hold him accountable.

Neither could many of us.

Chauvin will now wait eight weeks for sentencing but relief was much briefer. The verdict hadn’t even been read before a Columbus, Ohio, cop killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl, in front of her own house. Police said Bryant had a knife, but witnesses added the context that she was armed in self-defense and that Bryant herself had called the police because she was being jumped by other girls. As the news spread, our collective sigh flipped back to anger and exhaustion at yet another flashpoint in the battle to bring a permanent end to police violence against Black bodies.

New York’s city council voted to end the use of “qualified immunity” — the concept that cops can’t be held personally liable for their actions on the job — as a defense in abuse of force cases.

While many viewed Chauvin’s conviction as a watershed moment, the truth is that full justice was never available through convicting one cop of murder. Still, there was a sense that a tide was turning. The course of a four-week trial saw one previously unthinkable event after another: a Black state attorney general took over the case from local prosecutors, a diverse jury was seated, cops — both local and from other, bigger departments — crossed the thin blue line to help the state jail one of their own.

Other signs of progress flashed while Chauvin was on trial. Maryland’s General Assembly overrode a gubernatorial veto to pass the most sweeping statewide police reform in the country. The legislation repealed the state’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, a set of protections that shields cops from the kinds of discipline and accountability other public employees are subject to. It includes possible criminal penalties for cops convicted of using excessive force and gives civilian boards real power to discipline officers.

New York’s city council voted to end the use of “qualified immunity” — the concept that cops can’t be held personally liable for their actions on the job — as a defense in abuse of force cases; Mayor Bill DeBlasio said he supports the move. With a Democrat-controlled Congress and White House, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the House in March, but it faces a hurdles in the Senate.

Justice was never available by convicting one cop of murder. Still, there was a small sense that a tide was turning.

None of it amounts to the broad remake of law enforcement imagined by the activists calling for defunding, disarming, or dismantling police. Yet over the past few months, there’s been more legislative and policy progress toward curbing police abuse than at least since the dawn of the Black Lives Matter movement. There might even be more to come. Then came the verdict, where we watched live as a judge pronounced Chauvin guilty on every count and experienced the catharsis of watching his eyes dart around the courtroom in search of a salve before being led away in cuffs. It was a sweet moment, even though we knew that his trial was less a triumph of the justice system than an indictment of how poorly it had worked in the first place.

And then, as if on cue, four shots rang out in Columbus to remind us of what we can never, ever afford to forget.

Keith Reed is a writer, commentator & former ESPN the Magazine editor, whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Vibe, Essence, CNN, MSNBC and elsewhere.

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