President Joe Biden spoke about police reform on Thursday, marking the three-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.
“As a nation, may we ensure that George Floyd’s legacy and the legacy of so many others we also honor every day are not solely about their deaths, but what we do to honor their memory,” Biden said.
Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed Floyd on May 25, 2020, after kneeling on Floyd’s head and neck for nine minutes as Floyd repeatedly said that he could not breathe. The incident shocked the nation, catalyzed a summer of protests, and inspired a larger debate about the role of police in our society.
And while Floyd’s murder was tragic, the reaction to the murder (which included the Defund the Police movement) was hazardous and misguided.
A Flawed Narrative
The police provide an invaluable public service, often to the detriment of their own personal safety.
Because of how invaluable police work is, and because of how dangerous police work can be for the officers, and for the community that the officers are responsible for protecting, the police need to be held to an impeccable professional standard.
Police work and police decisions, and above all, police use of deadly force, should be scrutinized intensely. Reforms should be identified and implemented, and nothing short of perfection should be acceptable either within the police force’s chain of command, or to the public at large.
But the George Floyd murders catalyzed scrutiny of police work that transcended tactical or strategic scrutiny. Instead, the 2020 scrutiny became existential, suggesting that we did not need the police.
Obviously, we do need the police. The alternative is absurd. Fortunately, the push for defunding the police has fizzled out.
But the narrative that police use of deadly force is primarily a racial issue predated the killing of George Floyd and has persisted even after the movement to defund the police fizzled. To be clear, some deadly force incidents are tinged with racism. But one cannot assume the incident is racist based solely on the ethnicity of the cop and the suspect involved. Rather, careful analysis should be conducted to understand when an incident is racist.
For the most part, the categorical cops-are-racist-narrative is not especially cogent outside of anecdotal evidence. The reality is more complicated. Use of deadly force transcends race and is more likely predicated by factors such as socio-economic status or mental-health status. And bear in mind, hundreds of white people die in police use of deadly force every year. Few of those incidents trend on social media or on CNN, so the public doesn’t have the full story. In all, the narrative that deadly force is a racial issue obscures the reality and in doing so makes reform, which the public deserves, less likely.
So, I was disappointed to see Biden’s statements include the line that “George Floyd’s murder exposed for many what Black and Brown communities have long known and experienced – that we must make a whole of society commitment to ensure that our Nation lives up to its founding promise of fair and impartial justice for all under the law.”
I have a tough time believing that Biden, the architect of the 1994 Crime Bill that has disproportionately led to the incarceration of non-white citizens, believes that police use of deadly force is a racial issue – which is why he isn’t explicit.
But his message will reach the people it was meant to reach and it will further enable a narrative that is both harmful to the police (and their meaningful efforts) and prophylactic to the meaningful police reform that both cops and citizens deserve.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.