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Jury to consider the fate of 3 ex-officers in George Floyd civil rights trial


It is up to the jury now to decide whether three former Minneapolis police officers violated George Floyd's civil rights while a fellow officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee to Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes and killed him. Thomas Lane held Floyd's legs down. J. Alexander Kueng knelt on Floyd's back. Tou Thao stopped bystanders from getting too close. This high-profile federal case is once again raising questions about policing practices in this country.

Rashawn Ray is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He also runs a virtual reality training program for law enforcement at the University of Maryland. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

RASHAWN RAY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Does a civil rights trial like this one have the potential to change policing practices at a systemic level?

RAY: I think that it could. So to give people some context - we know every single year that over 1,000 people are killed by law enforcement. That is one person every eight hours. Part of what this means is it is a systemic problem. The issue is that Congress, the Senate more specifically, failed to act on police reform at the federal level. So a trial of this magnitude could send ripples throughout not only the way that police departments and police officers operate, but also, the type of leeway that state legislatures and local municipalities feel that they have - to take changes when it comes to police reform.

MARTIN: I mean, some change has come - right? - after a growing list of Black Americans have been killed by police. Some departments have put new standards in place about when officers can use force. They've also started using body cameras more often, dashboard cams. What difference does have those changes made, and what else tangibly needs to be changed about policing?

RAY: Well, you're right. There's been a lot of movement at the state level and local level. I've been working with colleagues at Brookings, University of Maryland, the University of North Carolina, doing a lot of analyses to see what's happening on a broader level with police reform, particularly following the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which failed. One thing that I've noticed from my research over the years is that it's not only about the mandating of policy but also the implementation of policy. And when it comes to the issue of what happened to George Floyd, yes, it's about duty to intervene, which we're starting to see at the state and local level, but it is also about protecting officers who do intervene.

There have been incidents around the country, particularly involving Black women officers, who have been either treated unfairly, dismissed or actually brutalized themselves for intervening. We need to ensure that there are protections for officers who actually intervene, or else the culture of policing that leads to this blue wall of silence being set up - not only because they want to be beside their fellow officers but because there are real stigmatizing outcomes and effects for them actually intervening in these situations.

MARTIN: Well, that was part of the defense - right? - of one of these former police officers in Minneapolis. He said that Derek Chauvin was the ranking officer on the scene, and then he couldn't argue with him.

RAY: Look, that is real. At the University of Maryland, we've trained thousands of police officers, worked with dozens of departments in our virtual reality training program, and that is definitely a real thing. The hierarchy is there. Police departments are paramilitary organizations. And so if we're going to disrupt that, it's not only about the policy, but it's also about changing the culture. One of the things we know about Minneapolis is that even though the department had banned certain types of chokeholds and other sorts of tactics, that the Fraternal Order of Police was still engaging in a warrior-culture mentality and training program that led to what happening (ph) to George Floyd being normalized in that department.

MARTIN: In this federal case against these three former officers, another defense was that they weren't well-trained. Is that valid? And is there going to be any effect on police training as a result?

RAY: You know, I must be honest. I'm so tired of hearing about police officers not being well-trained. Look, I can tell you, we have observed countless hours of police officers being trained. They are actually trained. The problem is that it's not about the quantity; it's about the quality of training. And when you train individuals in a punitive way, when we know nationally that officers receive over 50 hours of firearm training and less than 10 hours of de-escalation training, not to mention all of the tactics that are used to actually implement force, we get the types of outcomes that we see. Instead, we need a qualitatively different training process. And we think some of the work that we've been doing at the University of Maryland is important, where we are actually training officers to use more communication, more de-escalation and actually be more objective in their outcomes.

MARTIN: Are you seeing a shift, though? I mean, these officers are on the stand in this trial talking about the circumstances of that day when George Floyd was killed. In some ways, they are they are placing blame on their supervising officer in a way that maybe they hadn't felt emboldened to do before.

RAY: It is a shift. And it's going to be curious to see how much impact this shift has. But over the coming years, I think people hope that the changes happening at the state and local levels will actually do something here.

MARTIN: Rashawn Ray with the Brookings Institution - thank you.

RAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.