Three guilty verdicts in the trial against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin represent the difference between “capital-J Justice and small-j justice,” said Margaret Burnham, university distinguished professor of law, during a discussion among Northeastern scholars on Wednesday.
“I’ve heard it said that the only justice here would be if George Floyd were still alive, and that does resonate with me,” said Burnham, who founded and leads the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at the university. “However, I would not minimize the small-j justice represented by the verdict in this case.”
Chauvin was found guilty earlier this month on three charges related to the murder of Floyd, a Black man on whose neck Chauvin kneeled for more than nine minutes last May. The event touched off protests around the world against police violence and racial injustice. Chauvin, who is white, will face sentencing in the coming weeks.
Burnham joined a host of Northeastern’s leaders in the fields of law, policing, criminal justice, and race on Wednesday for a panel discussion to reflect upon the verdicts and what they represent moving forward.
“The historically difficult relationship between the Black community, the police, and the justice system was brought forcefully into our consciousness” in the wake of Floyd’s death, said Richard L. O’Bryant, director of the university’s John D. O’Bryant African American Institute.
“Can this represent a turning point in that longstanding, tense relationship?” he asked those assembled at the virtual webinar, which was moderated by Nicole N. Aljoe, director of the Africana Studies program at Northeastern as well as associate professor of English and Africana studies.
Ayanna Miller, a doctoral student of criminology and justice policy, offered that the verdicts represented “accountability, but not justice.” Miller echoed Burnham’s remarks that the verdicts “don’t bring back George Floyd, and they don’t reduce the trauma of seeing a Black man take his last breaths on camera.”
“I don’t think we should be satisfied or placated,” said Miller, who is also a member of the Northeastern University Police Department Advisory Board, formed in June 2020 among a number of measures by the university to confront anti-Black bias. “We have to start investing in prevention rather than just intervention,” she said.
Michael A. Davis, chief of police and vice president of campus safety, also recommended that police departments across the country should “reconstitute, redevelop, and reimagine what it means for our communities to be safe,” he said.
“This is a moment unlike any other in my 30 years of policing,” said Davis, who began his career in Minneapolis’s Third Precinct, the same precinct Chauvin would later work.
“The numbers-driven way of measuring police performance in the early 90s has meant that we’ve lost the true sense of humanity in policing,” he said. “We need to focus on outcomes in the context of public safety writ large—less about the crime and more about the experience for each human being.”
For Rod K. Brunson, who is the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Chair of Public Life and professor of criminology, criminal justice, and political science at Northeastern, the verdict was “an inflection point.”
“It was a much-needed step forward that should also mobilize movements for greater police accountability,” he said. “Bystander and police body cameras have made abundantly clear to the entire nation the reality of what was inherently known by some minority communities: We need police reform even if we don’t agree on what it looks like, yet.”
A video of Floyd’s death taken by a bystander ricocheted across social media and served as a key piece of the case against Chauvin. The video inspired outrage around the world, and for Karl Reid, Northeastern’s chief inclusion officer, served to highlight the enormity of evidence required to result in Chauvin’s three guilty verdicts.
“Like many of you, I had mixed emotions as I watched the verdicts last week,” Reid said. “I cried thinking about George Floyd’s family and the vindication I hoped they felt. But the unusual circumstances in this case tempered my dual feelings of elation and vindication.”
Reid, who was hired for the new position in February, also outlined the broad strokes of the university’s system-wide approach to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion at Northeastern.
The approach requires bolstering five fronts simultaneously: increasing diversity across all levels of the university; ensuring equity by “rooting out areas of discrimination and bias”; developing inclusion in part by offering antiracist and implicit bias training for faculty and staff; closely examining the university’s relationships with its community; and making data more readily available.
“We can’t address our issues with police interactions if we don’t address cultural bias and discrimination against people of color,” Reid said.