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San Diego hails Chauvin verdict, unsure if it marks a turning point

The verdict against former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, guilty on all counts in the murder of George Floyd, unleashed an overwhelming outpouring of bittersweet satisfaction across San Diego Tuesday.

While many community leaders praised the jury for sending a message of accountability, they also cautioned that true justice remains fleeting until policing in America commits to substantial change.

“Derek Chauvin did not act alone. His actions were produced by the system that trained and supported him,” said Andrea St. Julian and Maresa Martin Talbert, co-chairs of San Diegans for Justice, a group advocating for police accountability. “Until we change that system, we cannot move forward, and the death of George Floyd, and so many others like him, will have been in vain.”

The reading of the verdict was as much a watershed moment in San Diego as it was across the country Tuesday afternoon, as many paused their daily routines to hear the jury’s decision live. More than 100 demonstrators gathered hours later and marched through downtown San Diego, re-energized in their drive for social justice.

“The whole world watched the murder on May 25, 2020, the trial, and the conviction,” said Michael Brunker, the retired leader of the Jackie Robinson YMCA who now runs a training program called The Third Option City. “Any other outcome would have been hard to explain to all, especially those little eyes — the children who watched that knee on George Floyd’s neck and back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.”

The killing of Floyd and trial of Chauvin came to embody a nearly yearlong reckoning over racial justice. That movement unfolded in the streets and at the polls and dominated social discourse under the banner of Black Lives Matter.

Floyd’s death ignited both institutional and personal examinations into biases, spurred calls for police reforms and challenged traditionally high police budgets, as well as the power of their unions.

While the “defund police” movement got little traction with San Diego County lawmakers, the moment was ripe for other changes. In November, voters passed a measure to scrap the city’s existing police review board for a new, more independent body with subpoena powers. And in June, every law enforcement agency in the county banned the use of the controversial neck hold known as a carotid restraint — a result that police accountability activists had sought for years.

Heated politics

The reckoning has also exposed deepening racial and political rifts in America, illustrated in part by those who supported police and opposed the protest movement with slogans such as “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.”

That police brutality against people of color is not acknowledged universally as a reality is partly why Tuesday’s verdict has been broadly characterized as an incremental win for civil rights. Another reason: people of color continue to die disproportionately at the hands of police.

“I don’t believe that this is a time of celebration,” said San Diego activist Tasha Williamson, who has been leading protests outside the police substation in Southeast San Diego for the past two months. She said Chauvin must still be sentenced, and three other officers who are charged with being accessories to Floyd’s death have yet to stand trial.

Williamson said she does not expect the Chauvin verdict to represent a turning point in American policing.

“This is a man who committed a crime and was found guilty,” she said. “We have had more than 50 other killings and brutalizations of Black and Brown people since George Floyd.”

The activist and former mayoral candidate also noted that Metropolitan Transit System police and security killed 24-year-old Angel Hernandez by kneeling on his neck and back for an extended period of time in October 2019, seven months before Floyd died.

MTS officials on Monday apologized to Hernandez’s family and announced a $5.5 million settlement. They also released camera footage of the deadly encounter.

“That video was withheld for more than a year,” Williamson said.

‘It’s just overdue’

Many struggled to make sense of the conflicting emotions that the moment elicited Tuesday.

“I’m unable to accurately describe the relief I feel,” Janice Brown, a San Diego employment attorney who consults on diversity and inclusion issues, said on Twitter. “It isn’t joyous. It isn’t congratulatory. It’s just overdue.”

Monica Montgomery Steppe, San Diego City Council’s only Black member and chairwoman of the council’s public safety committee, described angst-ridden moments leading up to the verdict’s reading, followed by relief.

“This verdict is a seed of hope for mothers, fathers, and families with Black sons that our lives do matter, and more needs to be done to reimagine policing in our communities of concern,” Montgomery Steppe said.

J. Luke Wood, the associate vice president for faculty diversity and inclusion at San Diego State University, described an “overwhelming sense of happiness and sadness.”

“The difference for this case was clear video evidence of an innocent man begging for his life. But do Black lives matter when there is no camera in sight?” he said. “So, yes, justice prevailed today, but will it prevail tomorrow?”

While Floyd’s death has put policing under intense scrutiny — and sparked polarizing opinions on the of bias in police work — the brutality displayed by Chauvin has been widely rebuked by law enforcement across the board.

San Diego police union leaders welcomed the conviction.

“Our justice system has worked again,” said Jack Schaeffer, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, adding that he believed the trial was fair.

Schaeffer said Chauvin’s actions broke policy and that “when people do things the wrong way, they need to be punished for it.”

Gloria’s message to police

Mayor Todd Gloria decided that the moment called for a personal message to the city’s police force.

So around 3:30 p.m. — as many San Diego police officers were likely preparing for an evening of social justice marches downtown — he read a statement over the city’s police radios.

“Today’s verdict is just the beginning of building a deeper trust with our community,” Gloria said. “Justice was served today against someone who does not represent you, or us, or our department, or who we are as a nation.

“So, I want you to hear from me today: I know who you are. You are people who help complete strangers on the worst day of their lives. You are people who believe in collaboration and community. You are people who put your lives on the line every single day to protect this city.”

Testimony from Chauvin’s fellow officers condemning the former officer’s actions was crucial in the trial, according to several veteran civil rights attorneys who have brought police misconduct cases against San Diego County agencies.

That crack in the “blue wall of silence” — the term for police officers closing ranks and not providing testimony or information against another officer — could have greater implications in the future, said attorney Gerald Singleton.

“There is such a strong culture of not reporting. If that breaks down, it will be a watershed,” he said. “If not, there will not be systemic change.”

Thomas Robertson, another civil rights lawyer, pointed specifically to the testimony of Chief Medaria Arradondo, who testified that Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck “in no way shape or form is anything that is by policy.”

“That was no joke for that police chief to get on the stand and do that,” Robertson said.

Trials to come

But the unique factors of the Chauvin case — the number of bystanders, and the powerful nine-minutes of unblinking video documenting Floyd’s death — make that potentially important change far from certain, he said.

“The bigger question is in a tough case, where you rely on one eyewitness instead of a video,” he said. “Do these people come out then and testify against another officer?”

Tuesday’s verdict is also a landmark because it breaks from a history of juries being generally unwilling to doubt an officer’s split-second decisions and convict on murder.

In October, another law enforcement officer will face a jury on a second-degree murder charge here.

Former San Diego sheriff’s Deputy Aaron Russell, 24, has been charged with fatally shooting 36-year-old Nicholas Peter Bils on May 1, 2020 — just weeks before Floyd’s murder in Minnesota. Bils, who was White, was unarmed and running away from law enforcement after escaping from a state parks patrol car near the downtown San Diego jail when Russell fired five shots from behind and to the left of Bils, striking him four times.

Russell was the first law enforcement officer in California to be charged with murder since the state raised the standard last year for when peace officers can use deadly force and could make it easier to prosecute officers in such cases.

Staff writers Jeff McDonald, Alex Riggins, Gary Robbins, Greg Moran, David Hernandez and David Garrick contributed to this report.

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