Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
The unspoken bond among police to defend each other, often no matter the circumstances, has continuously hindered investigating and prosecuting officers accused of wrongdoing. But that so-called Blue Wall of Silence is now crumbling around Derek Chauvin, who’s facing up to 65 years in prison for the murder of George Floyd.
“In no way, shape, or form is what Officer Chauvin did part of our training, ethics, or values,” Minneapolis’ first Black police chief, Medaria Arradondo, said plainly in front of the jury Monday.
In the last four days of Chauvin’s murder trial, several high-ranking police officers have taken the stand and openly condemned his actions, which reignited a national movement against police violence last summer. Law enforcement witnesses have repeatedly testified that Chauvin never should have kneeled on Floyd’s neck, and certainly not for more than 9 minutes when the 46-year-old Black man wasn’t actively resisting. They’ve also said that doing so violated their training, department policies, and moral promise to serve.
“To rally around Chauvin and say, ‘This is policing as normal, this is acceptable practice,’ would risk greater harm to the reputation of the police than basically just coming forward and saying, ‘This is not who we are, and this is not what we do,” Daniel Medwed, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University’s School of Law, told VICE News. “I think all of them are aligned with coming forward and saying Chauvin is outside of our group: that he is a bad apple but we are a good tree.”
Chauvin’s former supervisor, Sgt. David Pleoger, was the first law enforcement officer to take the stand at the Hennepin County Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis last week. He testified that Chauvin could have—and should have—removed his knee as soon as Floyd was handcuffed and on the ground.
Lt. Richard Zimmerman, the Minneapolis Police Department’s most senior officer, called what happened to Floyd, who was arrested for allegedly using counterfeit money at a southside Minneapolis convenience store, “totally unnecessary” and “uncalled for” and that there was no reason to use “top-tier deadly force.”
“In no way, shape, or form is what Officer Chauvin did part of our training, ethics, or values.”
And the blows to Chauvin’s defense are still coming in the second week of arguments.
Both Arradondo and Lt. Johnny Mercil, who testified Tuesday, confirmed that per Minneapolis Police Department training, officers can’t use a neck restraint on someone who’s “passively resisting.”
“That action is not de-escalation,” Arradondo said in Hennepin County Court Monday. “I absolutely agree that it violates our policy. That is not part of our policy, that is not what we teach, and that shouldn’t be condoned.”
In fact, Mercil, a 29-year veteran of the department who trained Chauvin, told the jury the former cop was taught to use “the least amount of force necessary” to control a given situation.
The defense team for Chauvin, who’s been charged with second- and-third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, has tried to paint the former officer’s actions that day as reasonable, especially given how quickly situations can change and escalate. During cross-examination of the law enforcement witnesses, attorney Eric Nelson has pointed out that the Minneapolis PD even makes room for discretion: The use of force policy states that incidents shouldn’t be judged with “20/20 hindsight.”
That mentality is partly what built up the Blue Wall of Silence in the first place.
“There are professional, practical, and psychological reasons why that blue wall of silence exists,” Medwed said. “To protect the group as a whole from professional attack, and psychologically, to think, ‘Hey, we wear the white hats; one of our own couldn’t have done something wrong.”
But the growing popularity of progressive politics, including police reform, in cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco may also play a role in Chauvin’s former colleagues speaking out against his behavior. And the 2019 conviction of Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who shot and killed a woman who called 911 to report a sexual assault, proved that officers aren’t indefinitely protected from harsh consequences, including prison time.
“The climate, the tenor of Minneapolis was, you don’t get to wait 100 days before releasing body-cam [video] so you can come up with a story, make sure you’re all on the same page and then make public disclosures. That didn’t sit well with the public,” Luke Neuville, a criminal defense attorney in Minneapolis, told VICE News. “Well, today the government doesn’t get 100 days. They get three days.”
Speeding up the release of body-camera footage was one of several reforms Minneapolis put in place over the last five years. The city also overhauled the police’s use of force policy to preserve the “sanctity of life” and decriminalized low-level marijuana offenses. Today, the city has a progressive city council and mayor, a reflection of the city’s changing views on policing.
“I wasn’t surprised at all to see the immediate condemnation of Chauvin,” he said. “You have to consider that the chief of police is in a different role. He’s not the union; he’s the brass. He’s rubbing shoulders with the mayor. His statements, his objectives and goals maybe aren’t always 100 percent in line with the rank-and-file cops. In many ways, he is a politician.”
But the chances of even charging, let alone convicting a police officer, are still minimal in the U.S., and Chauvin’s trial has provided a rare opportunity to see if police continue to protect each other. Whether that trend continues in future investigations and prosecutions remains to be seen.