Curtis Hill: Murder charges in George Floyd death are a good step but more needed to fix broken race relations

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The filing of charges Wednesday against four fired Minneapolis police officers indicates the wheels of justice are turning quickly to hold accountable the individuals accused of responsibility for the death of George Floyd, a black man who was handcuffed on the ground and not resisting arrest.

The charges are good news for Floyd’s family and good news for our nation, though tragically nothing can bring Floyd back to life or ease the pain of his loved ones and millions of people who never knew him but have been deeply affected by his death.

Americans of good faith all welcome clear signals that police brutality is being taken seriously and addressed in a productive way.

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The announcement that former officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder (up from an original charge of third-degree murder) and that charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder have been filed against fired officers Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao sends such a signal. All four officers could face maximum sentences of 50 years in prison if convicted.

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But don’t hold your breath that these new developments in the Floyd murder case will quickly fix our broken race relations in the United States. The torturous death of Floyd has exposed a festering wound that has been lingering for some time.

We must resist the temptation to put a disproportionate emphasis on a positive development in a single case.

In terms of quelling the violent riots, we must remember that the perpetrators of the shameful crimes across U.S. cities in recent days were almost certainly not motivated by any sincere quest for justice in Floyd’s death. The reasons for the behavior of these lawbreakers – and their disregard for life and property – stem from far less noble impulses.

Beyond that, however, the challenges of race relations on our continent have been 400 years in the making, and only through achieving long-term, consistent patterns of equal justice and opportunity can we make continued progress.

On a positive note, our nation’s journey toward ensuring civil rights for all has trended in the right direction for a long time.

Not long ago, many found it unimaginable that Americans would ever choose a person of color for president. And yet, in two consecutive elections we witnessed the election of a black president in a nation where three-quarters of the population is white. That can’t happen if America is a racist nation.

We need to keep maturing morally and spiritually in the ways that we regard our neighbors of every racial and ethnic background.

I believe that, to an overwhelming extent, most police actions involving the use of force are justified by the circumstances encountered by officers

As long as there exists violent crime, however, we had best be prepared for difficult discussions anytime our police officers use lethal force – especially when that lethal force is directed against a black person.

Before I became Indiana’s attorney general, I served as a county prosecutor for more than a decade. I know from experience that these incidents always prove challenging to communities. Unlike what we have seen in Minnesota, such incidents most often involve shootings.

I believe that, to an overwhelming extent, most police actions involving the use of force are justified by the circumstances encountered by officers. Usually, investigations reveal that officers acted to protect themselves or others from legitimate threats to their lives.

In a free society that promotes justice and accountability, police are necessary. We train our police in the reasonable use of force. We provide each officer with a badge and a gun and expect them to keep us safe even if it costs them their lives. And sometimes it does.

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When officers must use lethal force, we presume they are justified because that is the job we have asked them to do. At the same time, we always must conduct thorough investigations to confirm proper policies were followed. And whenever investigations prove officers were not justified, then they must face consequences – including arrest and prosecution when warranted.

The reason that many black people harbor suspicions regarding law enforcement actions is that black lives historically have not always seemed to matter.

Going back to colonial times in the 1600s, America has a long legacy of racial injustice – from the horrors of slavery to the harsh discrimination that persisted over the years that followed, including mob lynchings and other unspeakable crimes that the justice system too often ignored.

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The dehumanizing segregation of Jim Crow defined the lives of black people even in the 20th century. Fairness and justice were all but absent, and the distrust that exists between blacks and “the system” in America will still take a while to overcome.

Going forward, let us hope that we all can stand together as unhyphenated Americans and muster the courage to face our demons at this moment in time. The horrific death of George Floyd should never be forgotten as we continue working toward that more perfect union.

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