The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent trial of Derek Chauvin have become powerful symbols used by activists, reformers and elected leaders in the criminal justice reform movement. But that movement faces immediate challenges, despite widespread support for the Chauvin conviction — and not just because a new CBS poll indicated that almost half of Republicans questioned didn’t agree with the verdict.
Some but not all — by any means — of the loudest advocates in the criminal justice reform movement label all acts of police force against Black individuals as inherently unjustified. These advocates draw a quick equivalence between the murder of George Floyd, and the recent fatal police shootings of Adam Toledo in Chicago and Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio. But their deaths are not the legal or moral equivalent of Floyd’s murder. Here is why.
An armed 13-year-old can kill exactly like an armed 30-year-old –– by pulling the trigger of a gun while it is pointed at someone. Age doesn’t mitigate the danger when chasing a person in the night who has a gun that he’s already fired. Much is made of video that shows Adam Toledo turning away with the gun in his hand and then turning back after apparently dropping the weapon. What is indisputable is that the officer had to make the decision to shoot in less time that it took to read the beginning of this sentence.
None of those facts exist in the Floyd matter. That a 13-year-old died is an unquestionable tragedy and was likely preventable in the larger sense of the word. It’s a conversation that needs to be had and acted upon, but racial inequality does not make Toledo’s death the equivalent of the Floyd murder.
The same is true of the police fatal shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black woman. She was armed with a knife and attacking at least two other Black women as officers arrived. The video shows the immediate threat, not to the officer, but to the women being attacked. Just before the officer shot her, Bryant had a raised knife over another woman. The woman being attacked could have been a murder victim with a single, instant plunge of the knife.
The reviews of the Toledo and Bryant deaths — and others — must be transparent and timely. Even with videos, careful independent investigations are warranted. However, the summary grouping of these shootings as the same brand of police misconduct is not accurate. More important, such labeling undermines the police reform movement by creating a space where opponents can rush into and occupy. Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., did just that in a recent interview. Reform opponents will tell the public not to trust the activists who won’t recognize the difference between police behavior that attempts to save lives and police misconduct that unjustly takes life.
Further, the emphasis on officer-involved fatal shootings can be compelling, but such advocacy creates a real risk of missing the larger problem of officer contact with the public. The overwhelming supermajority (70 to 95 percent depending on the published source) of officers in the United States never fire a weapon outside of training. That statistic does not minimize the consequences of loss of life when officers use deadly force –– whether justified or not –– but it places it in the context of hundreds of thousands of officer-civilian interactions. Improving those contacts will reduce the officer-involved shootings and represents the foundation on which to pursue reforms. One enduring focus needs to be the recruitment and retention of diverse individuals who as officers are trained to interact with a constituency, and not merely fight the perceived antagonist.
Ample evidence supports fundamental reform of policing in America. Out of well-documented crimes by police and a growing recognition of unfairness in police contacts with minorities, the country has the opportunity to recast the role of police. Advocates, however, must maintain the momentum, born of loss and injustice, by avoiding the heavy weight of false equivalences. Success in police reforms may hinge on being able to distinguish between tragedies, mistakes and crimes in securing support for change across a divided nation.
Michael McAuliffe is a former federal prosecutor serving both as a civil rights prosecutor at the Department of Justice and as a supervisory assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida. He also served as the elected state attorney for Palm Beach County. Currently, he is an adjunct professor at William & Mary’s Law School and a senior lecturing fellow at Duke University School of Law. His debut novel, “No Truth Left To Tell,” was published in March 2020.