Eyewitness video of police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd sent shockwaves throughout the United States and sparked demonstrations in major cities across the country, including an organized protest in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood on Friday.
Their message: Police need to be held accountable for their actions and brought to justice.
It’s extremely rare for police officers to be charged when a person dies as the result of a law enforcement encounter. In Sacramento, similar protests were sparked after police officers shot and killed Stephon Clark, a 23-year-old black man who was not armed when he was confronted by officers.
After a year-long investigation, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert declined to file charges against the officers involved in the Clark case.
“There was no justice or accountability for my brother,” Stevante Clark, the brother of Stephon Clark, said at Friday’s rally, according to a report. “I think we have to wait to see how this plays out to see if George Floyd gets justice because at the end of the day, transparency with accountability means nothing.”
So why aren’t more law enforcement officers charged when people die during police encounters?
“The main reason is no prosecutor, for political reasons and to get reelected, ever wants to lose a high-profile case,” Sacramento criminal defense attorney Mark Reichel told FOX40 News. “It’s better to not bring it than to lose a high-profile case and, obviously, officer-involved killings are always high-profile.”
Prosecutors typically bring cases they feel they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, legal experts say, and juries are typically more likely to believe police officers acted out of self-defense or a sense of danger when presented with conflicting evidence or testimony.
But the video evidence in George Floyd’s death showed precisely the opposite. The videos published earlier this week didn’t just triggered protests — they also led to calls for an investigation and charges from law enforcement groups across the country.
That evidence, prosecutors in Minneapolis said, was key in bringing charges against Chauvin.
“This is by far the fastest that we’ve ever charged a police officer,” Mike Freeman, the top prosecutor in Hennepin County, Minnesota, said at a press conference.
Late Friday afternoon, U.S. Attorney William Barr said the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were also investigating whether Floyd’s civil rights were violated.
“Both state and federal officers are working diligently and collaboratively to ensure that any available evidence relevant to these decisions is obtained as quickly as possible,” Barr said.