The three former police officers who were involved in the fatal arrest of George Floyd have been found guilty of depriving him of his rights in the moments before his death.
Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao were found guilty of failing to provide George Floyd with medical care as he lay gasping and begging “please, I can’t breathe.”
The jury also found the men’s conduct caused Mr Floyd’s death, which could affect the severity of their sentences.
It is a rare instance in which police officers have been held criminally responsible for a death in custody.
Duty of care
The case centred on questions about whether an officer has a duty to intervene in another officer’s misconduct – in this case, the excessive force used by arresting officer Derek Chauvin who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.
Each of the men testified in their own defence, acknowledging they knew they had a duty of care to people in police custody.
The men still face charges of aiding and abetting Mr Floyd’s murder.
Mr Chauvin has been found guilty of George Floyd’s murder and sentenced to 22 and a half years, which he is already serving.
The former officer pleaded guilty to an additional federal charge of violating Mr Floyd’s rights during the arrest earlier this year.
Federal prosecutors are seeking a 25-year sentence to run concurrently with his current one.
Policing reform in the US
Since George Floyd’s death, more than 30 of the united states, along with Washington DC, have enacted one or more legislative reforms, covering a range of issues including use of force and the duty of officers to intervene, report, or render medical aid in instances of police misconduct; as well as policies relating to law enforcement reporting of misconduct.
The City of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, has removed $8 million from its police department budget and diverted funds into violence prevention and mental health crisis response services.
Another city, Boston, reduced its police department’s overtime budget by $12 million and invested in trauma counseling, housing services, and other public health and social service agencies. Austin, Texas, has followed suit, divesting more than $153 million, nearly 35% of its total police budget to fund other agencies.
These initiatives are being hailed as real change, long overdue change. Initially, although the death of George Floyd highlighted systemic racism within the justice system, and throughout other areas of society, and even despite the worldwide attention on the criminal case, there were initially widespread fears that police departments and government agencies would only pay lip service to change.
This is not the case so far, although as US commentators have pointed out, these are only incremental steps, much more needs to be done.
Currently in the US, on average, cities spend more than one-third of their general funds on law enforcement, and almost twice as much on incarceration than they do on providing public assistance to disabled people, or those on low incomes, for example.
What can Australia learn?
A recent Productivity Commission report found that the annual cost of sustaining prisons in Australia in 2017-2018 had reached $4.6 billion. Broken down, that is a cost of $302 per prisoner, per day. Nationally, our incarceration rate is at an all-time high.
Rather than simply watch on as the US deals with the fall out of George Floyd’’s death and the public pressure for accountability and significant change, Australia should consider what lessons might be learned and implemented here.
Our governments too, have a tendency to turn a blind eye to police misconduct, and a reputation for allowing police the benefit of the doubt when it comes to what constitutes using “reasonable force” during an arrest.
Governments are also painstakingly slow to adopt recommendations from the 1987 Royal Commission to Aboriginal Deaths in custody, which made 339 recommendations – most of which are still valid. And every year, Indigenous people are still dying in custody at a much higher rate than non-indigenous Australians.