1782 Deaths but No Convictions
Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. A Minnesota jury yesterday found the former Minneapolis police officer guilty on three counts – second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter – for kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he suffocated and died on 25 May last year. In the days following Floyd’s death the world watched him gasp ‘I can’t breathe’ and knew, long before the jury was empanelled, that Chauvin had killed him, in public and in cold blood. That a jury found him criminally responsible may mark a historic moment for the United States. Such verdicts are vanishingly rare. In Britain, they are even rarer.
Only seven police officers have been convicted of murder for on-duty shootings across the US since 2005. In that period 140 officers have been charged and 37 of them were convicted for lesser offences ranging from aggravated assault to manslaughter. Around a thousand people a year in the US are killed by police (a 15-year-old girl was shot dead by police in Columbus, Ohio moments before the verdict on Chauvin came in). Securing a conviction seems nearly hopeless.
In Britain there is no hope of a conviction at all. It doesn’t happen any more. The last was in 1971 when two police officers in Leeds, Geoffrey Ellerker and Kenneth Kitching, were found guilty of assaulting David Oluwale, who had drowned in the river Aire. Since then no police officer has been convicted of murder, manslaughter or assault after a death in their custody or following police contact.
The charity Inquest began systematically recording these deaths in 1990 and have to date tallied 1782. If the British justice system is to be believed, not one of those who died or their families deserve to see a police officer held criminally responsible.
How have the police been afforded such a shockingly clean slate? Bereaved families often struggle through multiple rounds of investigation; evidence goes missing; officers are allowed to write up their statements in the same room. When investigations have led to a promising case being referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, families have found prosecutors apparently unwilling to mistrust the accounts of the police officers they usually rely on as witnesses.
Prosecutions are dropped without going to trial if the CPS says there isn’t a ‘realistic prospect of conviction’ – because the evidence isn’t good enough, or a jury is likely to believe the police, or simply because a conviction hasn’t been achieved before.
It’s true: for officers who kill someone in their custody or care there is currently no realistic prospect of conviction. The victims left behind in these cases know this all too well. Travelling through California in 2015 with the brothers and sisters of Sean Rigg, Kingsley Burrell, Leon Patterson and Mark Duggan, I watched as they met their US counterparts and shared the stories of how their brothers had died at the hands of the police.
Oscar Grant was fatally shot by Johannes Mesherle, a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer, on New Year’s Day 2009. Grant’s uncle, Cephus Johnson, told the British families the brutal story of how his nephew had been shot in the back. But it was the fact that Grant’s killer had been convicted that came as a surprise. Mesherle was found not guilty of murder, but he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. This wasn’t what the family wanted. It wasn’t justice for the way Grant had been taken from them. But it was a conviction, and offered a grain of hope that perhaps one day a British police officer, too, would be held accountable for a death in custody.
There was no straightforward ‘realistic prospect of conviction’ for Derek Chauvin. ‘Trying this case will not be an easy thing,’ the Minnesota attorney general, Keith Ellison, said after Chauvin’s arrest. ‘Winning this case will be hard. History does show there are clear challenges here.’ History will no doubt note, too, that the conviction was secured in the context of global uproar and local uprising across the US. It was fought for by George Floyd’s family and many strangers. It is far too early to say if the verdict will change the trend in US police prosecutions. It’s more difficult still to say if it will lead to a wider transformation of the policing that led to his death. But at least it looks as if the opportunity is now there for the US.
‘I was appalled by the death of George Floyd and welcome this verdict,’ Boris Johnson said yesterday. As long as potential jurors (never mind the prime minister) remain convinced that this is an essentially American problem, that the British police are different and fundamentally to be trusted, officers who kill those in their custody will continue to go unconvicted, and the victims’ families will continue to be told that no one is guilty.