It shouldn’t seem so momentous to obtain a guilty verdict against a former police officer whose killing of a handcuffed citizen was captured on video: more than nine horrific minutes of Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, protected by a badge.
But it does, and that speaks volumes to the mistrust surrounding policing in America today, as well as the expressed determination of Seattle and Washington civic and community leaders to address systemic racism in the profession. Those closer to the issue — the families and friends of those killed by law enforcement in Washington — see the Chauvin verdict as a waypoint on a long, unfinished journey.
“It’s a reckoning,” said Leslie Cushman, an attorney and the citizen sponsor of Washington’s Initiative 940, which passed in 2018 and removed a barrier to charging police officers with murder in Washington, revamped state police training regimens to stress de-escalation and revamped how police shootings are investigated. New police reform measures continue to be implemented following Floyd’s death: On Tuesday, the Washington Legislature passed a bill requiring law enforcement officers to intervene if they witness another officer using excessive force in an encounter.
Tuesday’s verdicts, Cushman said, “are an important moment of accountability, but won’t mean anything until all brown and Black men are truly free from the harms and injuries that come to them from policing.
“This is a somber and sober moment, worthy of reflection,” said Cushman, who directs the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. “But it isn’t time for celebration. There’s a lot of work left to do.”
Annalesa Thomas, whose unarmed son Leonard Thomas was killed by a Lakewood SWAT team sniper in 2013 while clutching his 4-year-old son, leading to a record $15 million civil verdict — though no criminal charges — said she was “terrified it would go the way it always goes,” with the officer getting off.
“Now I guess I’m a little hopeful,” said Thomas, who dedicated some of that money to fund a police accountability organization that has been lobbying the Washington Legislature, Next Steps Washington. “I just hope we can keep the focus.”
Elaine Simons, the foster mother of 26-year-old Jesse Sarey, who was killed by Auburn police officer Jeff Nelson in May 2019, was overwhelmed with emotion.
“It sets a precedent, and we want to have cases reopened, we want to prosecute police, and we want justice for families across the nation,” Simons said.
Nelson — who has killed three people in his career — is the first police officer in Washington charged with murder under the new law implemented by I-940. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. Simons hopes the verdict in the Chauvin case will prove a favorable omen for the pending prosecution of the officer who killed her foster son.
Until I-940 was adopted, only two officers had been charged in connection with using deadly force in Washington in nearly 40 years, and one of those cases — the 2006 beating death of Otto Zehm in Spokane — was prosecuted by the federal U.S. attorney’s office. The other, a state second-degree murder prosecution in Snohomish County for the 2006 shooting of Niles Meservey, resulted in an acquittal.
“Families across the nation have been waiting for a semblance of justice. They’ve been waiting, and what this does is validate some of their pain,” Simons said.
“It’s hard to celebrate this verdict when you know there are hundreds of George Floyds out there,” said Sonia Joseph, whose son, Giovonn Joseph-McDade, 20, was shot and killed by Kent police in 2017 following a brief chase. Joseph-McDade was unarmed and police suspected him only of driving with an expired registration.
The family settled a civil lawsuit against Kent Police for $4.4 million last week. The officers involved were cleared of wrongdoing.
“All of those families want this kind of justice,” she said.
Frank Gittens, whose 17-year-old son, Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, was killed by King County sheriff’s deputies in a misguided undercover sting in 2017, said he was “just glad that things went the way they should have gone.”
He said the Chauvin prosecution brought up a lot of memories for him: He wished that his family could have seen the same justice. Gittens continues to work for police accountability. “I fight every day locally so that we can do things better here in Washington,” he said.
King County paid $2.25 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the boy’s parents.
No pending police deadly force case in Washington more resembles what happened to George Floyd than the killing of 33-year-old Manuel Ellis, whose death is currently under review by the Washington Attorney General’s Office.
Ellis, 33, died of oxygen deprivation after being restrained on March 3, 2020, by at least five Tacoma police officers and one Pierce County Sheriff’s deputy.
Eyewitness videos and law enforcement records show that officers punched, choked, Tased, hogtied and restrained Ellis before placing a nylon spit-hood over his head.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide, with methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease listed as contributing factors.
Like Floyd, Ellis repeatedly pleaded with officers in his final moments, saying he couldn’t breathe while officers pinned him to the asphalt.
The verdict in Chauvin’s trial did not instill confidence in Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, that the officers under investigation for her brother’s death will be charged, much less convicted.
“I can’t honestly say that I know there will be the same outcome for my brother that there was for George Floyd,” she said. “There are some parallels, but these are two completely different cases.”
TraeAnna Holiday of nonprofits Africatown Community Land Trust and King County Equity Now, was relieved by the verdict and believes it hearkens both change and recognition that is a long time coming.
“We’re in a time that is transformative, where our nation is starting to understand these atrocities,” Holiday said. She hopes the verdict has the same effect as the seminal bus boycotts of the 1950s that led to the civil rights movement, and will spark tough conversations so that racism can be addressed within families.
“I hope that this verdict begins to change the hearts and minds of people,” she said.
Angélica Cházaro, the core organizer of Decriminalize Seattle, which calls for defunding the Seattle Police Department by at least 50% and shifting those funds to community resources, said society needs to look beyond the verdict.
“The question is, how do we create the world where George Floyd got to make it home?” she asked.
Shortly after the verdict was read in Minneapolis, the City of Seattle announced there would be a “citywide prayer and moment of silence” at 7 p.m., promising “to allow residents to have the space to grieve and honor the life of George Floyd.”
At the same time, the city also warned businesses “to take steps should demonstrations occur,” a reminder of a summer of protests and sporadic violence and vandalism in the wake of Floyd’s murder. SPD found itself in contempt of a federal judge for repeatedly using force against peaceful protesters; now, the department says it’s made changes to avoid escalating tensions at demonstrations.
“The Seattle Police Department, which has made significant changes of the last year, will be on standby for any peaceful, First Amendment gatherings,” a city news release said.
A few hours after the verdict, Mayor Jenny Durkan stood at City Hall with community leaders, interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz, Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins and members of the city council — Council President Lorena Gonzalez and Lisa Herbold — where the tone was a mixture of relief and hopefulness.
Among the participants was Rev. Harriett Walden, founder of Mothers for Police Accountability, who said Tuesday’s verdict was a long time coming after countless killings where officers had not been held accountable.
“Today is a good day for justice in America. It’s a good day for the African-American community who carry the collective sorrow in our system, in our body and our bones,” she said.
La Rond Baker, co-chair of the Seattle Community Police Commission, said the day was not a celebration, but “the best outcome that could have come from a horrible situation and centuries of violent policing of Black and brown bodies.”
She believes that the moment is an opportunity to scrutinize police use of force and accountability systems.
Durkan said the verdicts only confirm what anyone who watched that video already knew: “George Floyd was murdered and Derek Chauvin violated his most solemn duty to protect lives and uphold the law.”
“The cruel and degrading murder of Mr. Floyd shook our nation, but for too many Black Americans, his murder reflected an all-too-often reality of the deep and systemic impacts of racism in our country,” Durkan said in a statement. “True justice demands that we admit, recognize and work to address those systemic inequities.
“Although he should still be here, today jurors delivered justice for George Floyd’s friends, family, loved ones and the millions of Americans who mourned and marched for justice,” the mayor said.
Seattle Times reporter Patrick Malone contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the state charge filed in Snohomish County for the 2006 shooting of Niles Meservey was a manslaughter charge. The charge was second-degree murder.
A photograph did not show a display of victims of police violence, as the photo caption indicated. The image, which included a collection of photographs of faces attached to a backstop at Cal Anderson Park, depicted transgender individuals, most of whom were victims of violence.