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Derek Chauvin's Conviction Is A Shift In Police Accountability. But Progress Is Slow


George Floyd's killing caused a national uproar with calls for police reform and racial justice. The former police officer convicted of his murder, Derek Chauvin, was sentenced on Friday. That could indicate a shift - a step forward in police accountability. But even bringing charges against an officer is still a rarity in our legal system. Here is NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: George Floyd's family wanted a longer prison term for Derek Chauvin. Floyd's brother, Philonise, who has gone around the world speaking on behalf of families who've lost a relative to police violence, said the push to hold police accountable must continue.


PHILONISE FLOYD: We need to stand up and fight. Can't get comfortable because when you get comfortable, people forget about you.


FLOYD: So the legend will still live on. George is not here, but his spirit lives here. Breonna Taylor is not here, but the spirit still lives here. Eric Garner is not here - spirit still right here.

CORLEY: There were no charges filed against the officers involved in the case of Garner, who was killed in 2014 after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold, also no charges in the Breonna Taylor case. The Louisville emergency medical worker was shot several times in her home by plainclothes detectives. Peter (ph) Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University, is also a former police officer. He keeps track of police-involved killings. The majority involve people who are shot, 900 to 1,000 people a year. He says up to 100 more fatalities are like Floyd's, where it didn't involve a gun. He says, for the few officers that do serve time...

PHILIP STINSON: The average sentence was 21.7 years.

CORLEY: That's similar to Derek Chauvin's prison term, and there's a reason why that average is not higher.

STINSON: There's a recognition by courts that not only is policing violent but that when you have on-duty incidents that result in an officer being convicted here of murder, that the prison sentence is going to be a very hard time for a former police officer.

CORLEY: It may be rare for police to be charged with murder, but Floyd family attorney Benjamin Crump says recently, high-profile cases show a shift. His examples - Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014.


BENJAMIN CRUMP: And he was only sentenced to six years.

CORLEY: Amber Guyger, who killed Botham Jean after she mistook his apartment for her own in Dallas in 2018.


CRUMP: And she was only sentenced to 10 years.

CORLEY: And it was 20 years for South Carolina Police Officer Michael Slager, who shot Walter Scott in the back after he fled from a traffic stop six years ago.


CRUMP: Each case, we keep making progress. We came too far to stop now. We have to keep going forward. We don't have to put up with these injustices. We can stop this, America.

CORLEY: Stinson says what's needed is what so many have called for, a change in police culture. He also says the cases are hard to prosecute because investigators often give police the benefit of doubt, something not typically given to anyone else.

STINSON: They start with an assumption, quite often, that it was probably legally justified. And they only walk back from that if something is so over the top that it can't be rationally explained.

CORLEY: Stinson says that attitude can often lead to incomplete investigations and friction between police and prosecutors who try to fill in the gaps as they determine whether to file charges. That happened three years ago in the case of another Minneapolis police officer, Mohammed Noor. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 12 1/2 years, but the charges didn't come easy. At the time, Hennepin County prosecutor Mike Freeman said officers refused to come and answer questions.


MIKE FREEMAN: I've never had police officers who weren't suspects refuse to do their duty and come forward to talk to us. We therefore had no alternative than to subpoena them to a grand jury and take their testimony under oath.

CORLEY: That was not the case for Derek Chauvin. Several police officers, including the chief, testified against him during the trial. Now he is the 10th police officer in the country to be convicted and sentenced for murder. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Minneapolis.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this story, Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson was incorrectly identified as Peter Stinson.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.