Police brutality and accountability

By Edward Achorn

One of the reasons American history is critically important is that it teaches us how rare and precious civil liberties are.

Many Americans want to dispense with them. They want voices they disagree with to be silenced or constrained. They want government to exercise extra-constitutional powers for months on end to keep us all “safe.” They don’t care when one party uses the powerful apparatus of our nation’s intelligence agencies to spy on the campaign of another party.

But the horrible sight of a white police officer’s knee on the neck of a black man who was restrained and offering no resistance should remind us all of the importance of civil liberties.

It is hard to imagine a more potent symbol of the state’s unjust use of power against the individual.

George Floyd, 46, arrested on a nonviolent charge of forgery, was handcuffed on the ground. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin could be seen in a cell phone video with his knee, bearing the full weight of his body, on Mr. Floyd’s neck.

“Please, please, please, I can’t breathe,” Mr. Floyd said. “My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Please, please. I can’t breathe.”

These were not fake cries for mercy. He ended up dead as the result of the police action. Three other officers appeared to stand by — two regarded as non-white — rather than protect this black citizen from the actions of their colleague.

We don’t have the full video and editing matters in telling an accurate story. I do not know if police manuals condone such practices. But the scene appeared to reflect human nature at its worst: I have power over you, and I will damn well do what I please.

This horrible incident will be exploited now for the usual political purposes: to paint all police officers — and America itself — as irredeemably racist and evil.

It ignited massive local looting and destruction, spreading injustice to other victims.

These are the consequences of what appears to be egregious misconduct by this group of officers.

I do not share the belief that most Americans are racist. I believe every American of good will is horrified by this incident.

The real issue here is accountability.

It is essential that those entrusted with power — particularly those who make life-and-death decisions — be held accountable and compelled to maintain the highest standards. That goes for all of government.

According to CNN, 18 prior complaints had been filed against Officer Chauvin. Two had resulted in discipline — mere letters of reprimand.

Before we blame all of America and brand Americans as evil, which I believe is a diversionary tactic to evade accountability, it would be helpful to know: Who was running that department? Was it lax on bad officers? Did it permit abuses of power? What was the mayor doing? What was the governor doing? What was the citizenry doing?

Let us see what was going on in the department, city and state.

Cronyism almost inevitably permeates government. Those with power tend to protect their friends and treat the public as lesser individuals. In effect, two sets of laws prevail — one for them, and one for us.

As the Founders well understood, when you give people power, they will abuse it. That is why they divided and frustrated power, and defended the right of the people to speak out forcefully against government wrongdoing.

That is why I have spoken out throughout my career as an opinion journalist for accountability, limits on power and protecting the rights of all Americans — including now, during the COVID-19 scare.

We cannot trust anyone with power to do the right thing. Those with power must be watched, constrained by law, and held accountable. That’s the job of all of us.

(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)


  1. You must get soul-weary of saying this in your long career. But we expect you to keep it up as long as you can.


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