Tom Clyde: The most difficult job
This week’s guilty verdict in the murder of George Floyd came as a relief. The case was so outrageous, and the evidence so clear, that anything other than a conviction would have been a real disaster. How could the prosecution not get a conviction on those facts? It seemed absolutely certain, except when held up to the long history of other cases where the police seem to get the benefit of the doubt, and the person killed is presumed guilty of something or they wouldn’t have been arrested in the first place. Clear as the case was, a different outcome seemed entirely possible. Minneapolis had a couple thousand National Guard troops on stand-by just in case the jury had gone the other way and the city exploded. Somebody thought there was a fairly high possibility of a different outcome, and was bracing for the response. Convincing evidence doesn’t always result in a convinced jury, as O.J. Simpson showed us.
Justice was done, sort of. There’s really no putting things back together. George Floyd is still dead, and no jury (or the big cash settlement with the city) can change that. The facts in this case were so extreme, and the evidence so clear, that it’s a little difficult to say it has shifted the balance of accountability or will result in an overhaul of how policing works in this country. I hope it does, but there is a real risk that this case will always be regarded as an outlier, a grotesque, extreme example, and another excuse to ignore the more general problem.
It would be insulting for me, as a middle-aged white guy in about the whitest place in the country, to pretend that I can ever know or understand what a 20-year-old Black man experiences. I don’t get pulled over on the road for driving while white. But you would have to be living in a cave to have not heard and seen enough to know that there are significant differences between experiences and expectations based on what you look like. Eliminating those differences would be a great, and difficult, starting point.
Policing seems like an impossible job. Most of it would be incredibly boring — sitting on Kearns Boulevard watching for somebody to make a left turn into Prospector before 9 a.m. is not the stuff of television drama. The adrenaline doesn’t surge, even if the offender is driving a Range Rover with Texas plates. The problem is that one left turn is somebody trying to beat the traffic jam on S.R. 248, and the next left turn may be a delivery from a drug cartel, with the driver armed to the teeth. Somehow, we expect the police to intuitively know the difference from a distance and respond appropriately.
My most recent involvement with law enforcement was this fall. My brother-in-law died in his house next door to mine. He had been in failing health for a long time, and his passing was not unexpected in a general sense, but was a shock that morning when he didn’t wake up. With an unattended death, the Sheriff’s Office has to conduct enough of an investigation to determine that he had died of natural causes, and not been murdered. After the paramedic crew left, the living room of the house was, for an hour or so, treated as a crime scene, and my sister, who had just lost her husband of 52 years, was a potential suspect. Fortunately, the Summit County deputies who responded dealt with that delicate situation with compassion and the utmost professionalism. They knew what to do, and we really didn’t. They helped.
I was talking with one of the deputies out in the driveway, and could hear the radio traffic from dispatch. It hit me that in a matter of a few seconds, their next call could be responding to a violent domestic situation where some nutcase was barricaded in a house full of explosives and children, or a gruesome traffic accident. Or going to look for people doing the “East Side rolling stop” at the four-way in Francis. The expectation is that they will switch gears to address those radically different situations immediately, and without mistakes that endanger themselves or others in the process.
The George Floyd case was the worst of the worst. Of course there was a conviction there. My fear is that it will become the wrong measure. In future cases, I can imagine the defense saying, “Yes, this cop’s use of force was extreme, but it was no George Floyd situation.” Case dismissed. If we’re lucky, it won’t just be set aside, and will be a real beginning of the process of figuring out how to perform the impossible job of police work in a just and equitable way. I’m grateful that there are people out there who will take that job, and even more grateful that it isn’t mine. It is all of our jobs to see that this doesn’t keep happening.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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