All it took was the largest protest movement in U.S. history and a murder caught entirely on nine horrifying minutes of video to achieve the rarest of sights: a police officer led to prison for killing a Black person.
The trial and conviction of Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd happened around the same time the Washington state Legislature pushed through a number of long-overdue police accountability measures. But as past experience has shown us, the devil is in the details and how the laws are enforced.
In Washington, only three officers have been charged in connection with use of deadly force in nearly 40 years. One of the officers alone, Jeffrey Nelson, had a history of excessive force, with 65 documented incidents between 2011 and 2018, including three killings. Just days before he was charged with second-degree murder in the killing of Jesse Sarey, 26, the city of Auburn settled a $1.25 million lawsuit over Nelson’s 2017 fatal shooting of Isaiah Obet, 25.
On paper, Washington might seem further ahead on police accountability than other states. The 2018 passage of Initiative 940 was supposed to remove barriers to prosecuting police, create independent investigative teams and require a higher level of transparency and accountability for families of victims. But a report released in February by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson found that only five of 18 investigations of police use of force he reviewed met all the requirements of an independent investigation as required by the law.
One of the most telling examples of the failure to meet the requirements of I-940 is the March 2020 Tacoma killing of Manny Ellis, 33. Unlike George Floyd, Ellis is not a household name nationwide, but the circumstances of their deaths are all too similar.
Like Floyd, Ellis was unarmed and died after being restrained by police. The official cause of Ellis’ death was “oxygen deprivation due to physical restraint.” Like Floyd, video footage captured Ellis pleading with officers, “I can’t breathe.” Like Floyd, police accounts of Ellis’ killing shifted dramatically over time.
One of the key provisions of I-940 is that investigations must be done by an uninvolved police agency, but in the Ellis case, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department failed to disclose until the end of its three-month investigation that one of its officers was involved in detaining Ellis. The investigation was then turned over to the Washington State Patrol, even though its officers were at the scene as well.
A raft of Washington state police accountability measures passed the Legislature this session, including new restrictions on chokeholds and neck restraints; banning no-knock warrants like the one that killed Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky; easing the ability for officers to be decertified; and requiring officers to intervene when colleagues use excessive force.
While these are welcome and necessary changes — and the result of sustained advocacy by activists and families — it is galling to me that police officers have to be forced to treat the public they serve with humanity. The fact we had to legislate that officers intervene when they see excessive force, for example, reveals so much about the failures of the status quo.
The status quo, as is widely known, has deep racial inequality built into its DNA. Between 2016-2020 in King County, for example, Black and Indigenous people were killed by police at the highest rates.
So much of what little progress has been made in police accountability reminds me of a quote from Malcolm X, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress.” Tweaking the edges of what is a fundamentally racially biased and broken system of policing keeps the knife in our collective backs, it’s just a little less deep.
An accountable system is one in which police officers pay a price for killing someone like Floyd, Ellis or Taylor. A just system is one in which they were never killed in the first place. As poet and activist Barbara Deming said decades ago, “We cannot live without our lives.”
Over the past week or so, another set of names entered the public consciousness. The circumstances of the recent police killings of Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, of Columbus, Ohio, Daunte Wright, 20, of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, and Adam Toledo, 13, of Chicago, are all different, but they underline the reality that the same system that convicted Derek Chauvin is still operating as it always has, doing its deadly business.
Next week there will likely be a new set of names, more funerals, more protests, more families crying for justice, mourning their loved ones. Tinkering at the edges of a broken system is not enough.