WVU expert and former police officer weighs in on Chauvin verdict in George Floyd case

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The news of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdicts for his role in the death of George Floyd sent shockwaves around the nation and world.

In this image from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and defendant, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin listen to Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill read instructions to the jury before closing arguments, Monday, April 19, 2021, in the trial of Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

One person who was watching the trial and closely awaiting the verdict is Dr. James Nolan, professor and chair of the West Virginia University Sociology and Anthropology Department. Nolan, a former police officer, spent 13 years with the Wilmington (Del.) Police Department in divisions including patrol, community policing, organized crime and vice and planning and research.

“When the verdict was read, I, personally, had a lot of relief,” Nolan said. “Relief. It’s not over for sure, but there is some accountability for what happened. And, then the next step is to think about how we can change policing, kind of re-imagining policing as something other than in its current form.”

We live in an era of reforms, or at least in an era with a strong desire from the public to see change, and Chauvin’s case is representative of that, according to Nolan.

People rally outside the courthouse in Minneapolis on Tuesday, April 20, 2021, after the guilty verdicts were announced in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

He explains that the call for change is present in all aspects of society, be it economic, religious or even relationships with family members and friends.

“These are all not serving their purpose they served decades ago, and, so, we are questioning all of them, which includes the police, in this era of reform. We are thinking what types of things the police could do,” he said. “Historically, they have been law enforcers, and that’s been where most of their efforts are.”

In Chauvin’s case, Nolan said, many experts at trial testified to the fact that he had a mindset that was not going to back down and not going to give in. Although he had that mindset, and he is accountable for his role in Floyd’s death, the problem is bigger than one officer.

Chauvin’s mindset, Nolan argues, did not originate with him.

James Nolan, professor of sociology at West Virginia University. (WVU Photo)

“The mindset actually emerges from the law enforcement game. The strategy of law enforcement on how to make a community safe gives rise to that mindset in lots of people, so I’m fearful in these times that there are plenty of other people that are thinking like Chauvin was thinking, that we have to apprehend at all costs and not pay attention to what’s actually happening.”

Dr. James Nolan

Despite these concerns, Nolan said he sees a reality in which monumental changes in policing happen all across America. The conditions are right for change, but the solutions have to be appropriate. Right now, he said, the solutions many people are offering aren’t going to bring about the necessary reforms the public wants to see.

A big part of the problem in finding appropriate solutions is that we want to see change but don’t want to change how things work.

For example, many people, the sociology professor said, want officers to be “gentler and kinder but, yet they don’t change the task.”

“They’re charged with arresting violators of the law, and that’s their main focus,” Nolan said. “And, if you look at many police departments around the country, what officers are awarded for and recognized for with ribbons, and days off and that sort of thing, promotions, the thing they are awarded for is apprehensions. ‘How many did I apprehend, this many felons? And, did I bring in this many illegal guns, drugs and those types of things?’ And, the enterprise of policing is set up around apprehending and law enforcing.”

FILE – In this May 25, 2020 file image from Minneapolis city surveillance video, Minneapolis police are seen attempting to take George Floyd into custody in Minneapolis, Minn. The video was shown as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presided on Monday, March 29, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, in the death of Floyd at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. (Court TV via AP, Pool, File)

To many, Nolan said, it seems “ridiculous” to talk about the police doing something other than law enforcement. But to him, he sees it as the only way to bring about any kind of true systemic change to policing in America.

“From my perspective, as a former police officer, as someone who has studied policing for more than 20 years, this is what has to happen for policing to actually change. The approach to policing has to change, so that it’s focused more on building relationships and making places safer. That will give rise to a new disposition in officers, a new mindset, that will then, I think, really constitute real police reform.”

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