Individual accountability can’t solve systemic racism, says USC professor Jody Armour

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski and Nihar Patel

On Tuesday, the jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty in the death of George Floyd. Chauvin was deemed guilty on all three charges: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. 

The verdict was met with tears and relief — but also caution — across LA and the country. 

South LA resident Raymond Ross shared his reaction with KCRW, referencing the police killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota: “This is only one win. We lost hundreds. We still got another young boy out in Minnesota who got killed. And the cop claimed it was a Taser. But let’s just take it one day at a time right now. And be happy that we accomplished something where we can be heard. And we can be seen. And just everybody, just get along together.”

Ross was standing at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, where truck driver Reginald Denny was attacked during the 1992 LA uprising. “That was a hell of a day, that day. This is a whole different scene right here. This is a scene of rejoice and celebration, that the law was on our side for once,” said Ross. 

South LA resident Celia Rivera said Tuesday wasn’t a celebration because it was still clouded by the trauma of why we were here in the first place. “One moment of accountability, because it's not justice. One moment of accountability does not make up for the centuries-long violence. It is a drop into the ocean for me."

In Minnesota, George Floyd’s younger brother Philonise Floyd said his sibling’s death sparked a worldwide movement. “I get calls. I get DMs [direct messages]. People from Brazil, from Ghana, from Germany. Everybody. London. Italy. They’re all saying the same thing. We won’t be able to breathe until you’re able to breathe. Today, we’re able to breathe again.”

But just moments before the verdict was announced, police in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed a 16-year-old Black girl named Ma'Khia Bryant.

California Congresswoman Karen Bass, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, called policing killings the human rights issue in this country. “We saw the video tape. We understand the egregious murder. But what about the ones that were not taped on a cell phone? So today, I am relieved. Today I exhale. But today just marks the beginning of a new phase of a long struggle to bring justice in America.”

She urged the Senate to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which the House passed in early March. 

Lots of change needs to come next, says Cheryl Dorsey, retired LAPD sergeant and author of “Black and Blue: The Creation of a Social Advocate.” 

She says Chauvin’s conviction took her by surprise. 

“I thought that was so much subterfuge and so many distractions thrown out by the defense. I figured that there would be one juror who might be like-minded and hang this thing up. But I don't want to celebrate because a man lost his life and never to return to his family. But I am pleased that the jurors believed what they heard from the chief of police, his commander, his training officer, as well as the first sergeant on scene — that we don't teach our officers to conduct and comport themselves that way. This was something improvised.”

USC law professor Jody Armour says the conviction might indicate a different policing culture in the U.S. He references California’s three strikes approach to crime and punishment, the election of LA County District Attorney George Gascon, and the passage of Measure J, which will help fund alternatives to incarceration. 

But Dorsey says she’s unsure whether internal law enforcement culture in the LA area will change after Chauvin’s case. 

“We have errant officers still on the Los Angeles Police Department who are enjoying the shelter and cover of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. … And let's take a look right next door with the LA County Sheriff's Department, where you have 17 internal gangs within that department. And it's not like Sheriff Alex Villanueva doesn't know about the Executioners and the Vikings and the Regulators and the Jump Off Boys who all go out and get tatted up and have celebratory barbecues when they kill folks or maim people in South Central Los Angeles. And so the fish rots from the head. And while there may be some baby steps going forward, there's still much to be done.”

Even as conversations around redirecting police funds continue, Armour says there isn’t a true commitment to getting there. He references calls to increase police spending as the pandemic continues. 

“We're seeing that there really is a stronghold that law enforcement has on municipal governments across the nation, and this one here in LA as well. We're told now that gun crime has gone up because of the pandemic stresses, etc., that we need more police to do what? … Police aren't very effective at really solving what we really want to be solved: violent and serious crimes. And then they say, ‘Then you just need more of us.’ And that will somehow magically affect the crime rate. The criminology studies just don't support that kind of logic.”

Rethinking law enforcement's mission? 

Dorsey says the work of law enforcement is effective in most areas, but it’s crucial to hold the few who are causing problems accountable. 

“Training is not an issue. Officers pretty much know what to do. It's only when they violate that training ... that we continue to see the kinds of things that we do.”

She references former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager who shot and killed Walter Scott, and Timothy Loehmann, who was involved in the shooting of Tamir Rice in Ohio. She says both had histories of disciplinary action.

“It's not like officers don't know what to do. There needs to be a consequence commensurate with their violation and misconduct,” Dorsey says. “It's not a right to work patrol. Every division has somebody like Chauvin who nobody wants to work with. You put him on morning watch. You put him on the desk. You put him in the kit room. You get him out of the field so that he can't hurt or harm anyone until you can either put the paperwork together to get him off the force, or you just relegate him to a house mouse.”

Armour says it’s unclear whether new legislation, like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, could prevent someone from facing police brutality.  

“This isn’t just about individual accountability. What we're really concerned with is that the system itself is problematic. There's systemic injustice in it. And this individual accountability approach gives the impression that the system can police itself, that the system corrects itself. And it can’t, right? Personal accountability approaches will never solve structural problems.”