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We’re taking all the wrong lessons from the Chauvin verdict

The takeaway should be neither despair nor hope but something clear-eyed in between.

April 20, 2021: New Yorkers react after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all counts, including murder, for killing George Floyd.
April 20, 2021: New Yorkers react after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all counts, including murder, for killing George Floyd.HILARY SWIFT/NYT

Reaction to the guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial ran in a couple of directions.

For some, it was a hopeful moment.

A crack in the blue wall, the power of a teenager’s cell phone video, and the righteousness of a Minnesota jury offered a path, at least, to greater police accountability.

For others the verdict, however gratifying, heralded little.

The awful, ever-spooling newsreel of Black people killed by law enforcement — some as the Chauvin trial took place — showed that American policing had not changed. And there was little reason to think it could.

But if these are the lessons we draw from one of the most harrowing and energizing moments of the last half-century, we are making a mistake.

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Start with the capacity for change in American law enforcement.

Skepticism is understandable. The death toll from police killings in this country has remained distressingly steady in recent years.

But beneath that grim trend line, there is reason for optimism.

Data from Mapping Police Violence show that even as police killings are on the rise in rural and suburban areas, they are declining in America’s cities — dropping 30 percent between 2013 and 2020.

What differentiates big-city police departments from smaller ones? There are a couple of possible explanations.

Research from the Vera Institute of Justice shows that arrest rates have declined more quickly in large, urban counties than in smaller ones. And fewer arrests may mean fewer killings: Police are more likely to use force when making arrests than in other interfaces with the public.

Urban police departments have also faced heavier pressure to change their tactics. And that’s contributed to a broad shift in use-of-force policies.

Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles have seen substantial reductions in police killings after implementing policies requiring de-escalation and use of less-lethal force. And that’s contributed to a little-recognized phenomenon: a small overall decline in police killings of Black people.

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The scale of the problem, of course, is still horrifying. And Black people are far more likely than white people to be killed by police.

But the hopeful takeaway here is that change is possible. And activists would do well to take what they’ve learned in our largest cities and set about reforming smaller police departments in suburban and rural America.

Even if the country can bring down the number of police killings, though, there is little reason to expect that officers who kill civilians will face greater accountability in the wake of the Chauvin conviction.

There was so much that was unique about the case.

The video of Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck as he gasped for air and called out for his mother was an especially horrifying entry in the growing library of phone camera recordings of police brutality.

And police testifying against one of their own stood out even more. “To continue to apply that level of force to a person proned out, handcuffed behind their back — that in no way, shape, or form is anything that is by policy,” said Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo in his forceful turn on the stand. “It is not part of our training. And it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values.”

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But the most important distinction between this case and so many others may be that Chauvin did not use a gun.

A quick look at the numbers shows what an outlier that makes him. As of April 18, Mapping Police Violence data show, 312 of this year’s 319 police killings were by gunshot.

And juries are far less likely to convict an officer who makes a split-second decision to fire a gun than to convict someone like Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds as bystanders pleaded with him to let up.

Indeed, data collected by Philip Matthew Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, show that only 0.04 percent of fatal police shootings result in a murder conviction.

Some of those shootings, of course, are justified under the law. But the conviction rate is still vanishingly small. And it seems likely to remain that way.

The murder of George Floyd shocked the conscience and provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change how the country thinks about and approaches policing. But we need to have the proper perspective if we’re going to take advantage of that opportunity.

If there is despair where there should be hope, America won’t make the changes it must. And if we have hope where we should not, we are destined for disappointment.

We should understand that getting justice for those who are unjustly killed will be a struggle. But we should know, too, that we can do something to stop the killings before they happen.

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David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.