Perhaps the last chance to save George Floyd’s life arose within the first five minutes after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck. Officer Thomas K. Lane asked Chauvin whether Floyd, who was face down, should be rolled onto his side because “I am worried about excited delirium,” a condition known to have caused custodial deaths.
Chauvin refused to change Floyd’s position and, despite his apparent concern that Floyd could die, Lane was passive. Even though Floyd had stopped moving or speaking, Chauvin’s knee stayed on Floyd’s neck for several more minutes. Floyd was unconscious by then and would soon die. The onlooker videos played, and outrage convulsed the country over what looked like a cold-blooded police execution.
Along with former officers Tou Thao and J.A. Kueng, Lane has been charged with aiding and abetting Derek Chauvin’s alleged second-degree murder. Lane is 37 years old and comes from a family of police officers, including his grandfather. He became a police officer only last December. Unlike Chauvin, who was the subject of 17 police conduct complaints and Thao, who was the subject of six, Lane had no complaints.
Why didn’t Lane, who doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate to aid and abet police murder, do more to stop Chauvin? Stopping the likes of Chauvin largely depends on whether police engage in peer intervention, or “active” bystandership, instead of the passive bystandership that Lane displayed.
These are the terms used in police training programs that encourage police officers to stop their colleagues from committing illegal acts and crimes against citizens. Peer intervention in fact is a police officer’s legal duty. Peer intervention training stresses to police officers that a failure to act is far worse than passive bystandership. Active bystandership saves civilian lives, prevents the destruction of police careers and protects policemen and their force from criminal and civil liability.
But police peer intervention is up against formidable “inhibitors.” These include fear of retaliation by other policemen and the shared identity that police officers develop from working in stressful, frequently dangerous, circumstances, where they often depend on each other for safety. Perhaps Lane hesitated because he was afraid of Chauvin, a much more senior police officer, who has displayed aggressive behavior both on and off duty.
There is a short-term and a long-term in stopping the deaths of more George Floyds. Ending the systemic racism that plagues the Minneapolis Police Department, like many others, is a long-term effort. But in the short-term, police reform that, especially, encourages active bystandership is the best available option.
During the Obama administration, the Department of Justice entered into 14 court-approved consent decrees with municipalities and police departments that required them to adopt significant reforms, such as peer intervention training, to curb patterns of excessive police force. But Minneapolis was not part of any consent decree, which isn’t to say it had a model police force. In fact, in 2015 the Department of Justice recommended that the city do much more to weed out bad cops and set clear criteria for the use of force, which, tragically, the city did not do.
Minneapolis might have been subjected to a consent decree as a result, but then Donald TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE was elected president. His Department of Justice stopped adding cities to the consent decree program, de-emphasized police reforms generally and even opposed locally negotiated consent decrees. The president encouraged the police to avoid being “too nice” to handcuffed suspects in custody, which sounded to some like an invitation to use excessive force. Attorney General William BarrBill BarrMichael Cohen officially released from prison sentence Incoming NAACP Legal Defense Fund president sees progress against 'revitalized mission to advance white supremacy' Fox's Bartiromo called Bill Barr 'screaming' about election fraud: book MORE suggested that police reform is “dangerous to public safety.”
That approach hasn’t worked out very well, has it? Former President Obama recently suggested that cities should initiate police reform on their own. But police reform is technical, takes time and isn’t always successful. It doesn’t seem to fit the passionate, urgent, impatient mood of the moment.
But – and let’s be honest – at least in the short-term, there is no practical alternative.
Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.