Trial of 3 officers in George Floyd's death is latest test of American justice

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS)
From left, former Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. (Hennepin County Sheriff's Office/TNS)

Police abuse of power often involves not only the abuser but also other officers who enable the abuse through inaction and silence. They are virtually never prosecuted, meaning that a crucial precedent could be set with the trial that began Monday for the three former Minneapolis police officers who did nothing to forcefully intervene as Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.

The case against Chauvin, convicted last year, was straightforward: Video from a bystander documented how the white officer knelt on the neck of his Black victim for more than nine minutes on May 25, 2020, ignoring Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe and refusing to move until after Floyd’s body had gone limp. Despite that overwhelming evidence, the trial was a nail-biter because of juries’ historic reluctance to convict police officers in even the most egregious instances of abuse. The guilty verdict was in every way a victory for justice and a sign of societal change for the better.

The federal trial that started Monday for Chauvin’s fellow officers in some ways poses an even greater test for the evolution of American justice. The officers are accused of violating Floyd’s civil rights with their failure to intervene as they witnessed Chauvin’s abuse. The legal concept that police officers have a duty to prevent fellow officers from violating citizens’ rights has long been in law, but it is almost never enforced.

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All three of the officers — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao — are accused of failing to render medical attention to Floyd; two of them, Kueng and Thao, are additionally accused of failure to intervene in the assault. The case here is more complicated than Chauvin’s trial for several reasons.

Lane did suggest to Chauvin at least twice that he should reposition Floyd. Whether that proves that Lane attempted to do the right thing, or merely proves that he understood the danger to Floyd’s life and should have done more to save it, is a valid debate. Thao, who held back the crowd that gathered around the incident, claims he didn’t know what was going on behind his back, though video from the scene indicates he did turn and look several times.

Obviously the jury should consider all of these facts in context — along with the fact that Chauvin outranked them in seniority (two were rookies), and they may have felt they didn’t have the authority to more forcefully intervene against him.

But there is also a broader context that cannot be ignored: America’s police culture is notorious for circling the wagons around its wrongdoers. If the jury determines, based on the evidence, that the various defense explanations don’t justify the officers’ inaction — and that evidence shows it to be another example of the blue wall of silence — judgment should be unyielding.

— From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS).