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Commentary: After Chauvin Verdict, Time to Get to Work

photo of george floyd memorial

April 22, 2021 -- On Tuesday, April 20, the country braced for the impact of the verdict in the murder trial of George Floyd. If we are completely honest, the country — and particularly the African-American community — had significant doubts the jury would render a guilty verdict, despite overwhelming evidence presented by prosecutors.

In the hour leading up to the announcement, people and images dominated my thoughts — Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Rayshard Brooks, and most recently, Daunte Wright.

With the deaths of these Black Americans and many others as historical context, I took a stoic stance and held my breath as the verdict was read. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.

As Chauvin was remanded to custody and led away in handcuffs, it was clear there were no "winners" here. Mr. Floyd is still dead, and violent encounters experienced by Black Americans continue at a vastly disproportionate rate. The result is far from true justice, but what we as a country do have is a moment of accountability — and perhaps an opportunity to begin true system-level reform.

The final report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, released in May 2015 under President Barack Obama, recommended major policy changes at the federal level and developed key pillars aimed at promoting effective crime reduction while building public trust. Based on this report, four key takeaways are relevant to any discussion of police reform.

All are vitally important, but two stand out as particularly relevant in the aftermath of the verdict. One of the key recommendations was "embracing a guardian — rather than a warrior — mindset" in an effort to build trust and legitimacy. Another was ensuring that "peace officer and standards training (POST) boards include mandatory crisis intervention training."

As health professionals, we know the ultimate effectiveness of any intervention is based on the level of shared trust and collaboration.

As a consultation-liaison psychiatrist, I'm trained to recognize that when requested to consult on the case, I'm frequently not making a medical diagnosis or delivering an intervention; I'm helping the team and patient reestablish trust in each other.

Communication skills and techniques help start a dialogue, but without trust, you will ultimately fall short of shared understanding. The underpinning of trust could begin with a commitment to procedural justice.

Procedural justice, as described in The Justice Collaboratory of Yale Law School, "speaks to the idea of fair processes and how people's perception of fairness is strongly impacted by the quality of their experiences." There are four central tenets of procedural justice:

  • Whether they were treated with dignity and respect
  • Whether they were given voice
  • Whether the decision-maker was neutral and transparent
  • Whether the decision-maker conveyed trustworthy motives

These tenets have been researched and shown to improve the trust and confidence in police and lay the foundation for creating a standard set of shared interests and values.

As health professionals, there are many aspects of procedural justice that we can and should embrace, particularly as we come to our reckoning with the use of restraints in medical settings.

In addition to the recommendations of the federal government and independent institutions, national-level health policy organizations have made clear statements about police brutality and systemic reform.

In 2018, the American Psychiatric Association released a position statement on police brutality and Black males. In 2020, this was followed by a joint statement from the National Medical Association and the APA condemning systemic racism and police violence against Black Americans.

Other health policy associations, including the American Medical Association and the American Association of Medical Colleges, have also condemned systemic racism and police brutality.

In the aftermath of the Chauvin verdict, we saw something new and different. In our partisan country, there was uniform common ground. Statements were made acknowledging the importance of this historic moment, from police unions, both political parties, and various invested grassroots organizations.

In short, we may have true agreement and motivation to take the next hard steps in police reform for this country. There will be policy discussions and new mandates for training, and certainly a push to ban the use of lethal restraints and techniques, such as chokeholds. While helpful, these will ultimately fall short unless we hold ourselves accountable for a true culture change.

The challenge of implementing procedural justice shouldn't just be a law enforcement challenge and shouldn't fall on the shoulders of communities with high-crime areas. In other words, no single racial group should own it. Ultimately, procedural justice needs to be embraced by all of us.

The road is long, and change is slow, but I am optimistic.

As I watched the verdict, my oldest daughter watched with me, and she asked, "What do you think, Dad?" I responded: "It's accountability and an opportunity." She nodded her head with resolve. She then grabbed her smartphone and jumped into social media and proclaimed in her very knowledgeable teenage voice, "See Dad, one voice is cool, but many voices in unison is better; time to get to work!"

To Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old who captured George Floyd's murder on video, and all in your generation who dare to hold us accountable, I salute you. I thank you for forcing us to look even when it was painful and not ignore the humanity of our fellow man.

It is indeed time to get to work.

Dr Norris is associate dean of student affairs and administration at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.

WebMD Commentary

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This commentary is meant for informational purposes only.

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