Samantha Smith: Police officers should be required to intervene

This photo provided by the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office shows former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, who was arrested Friday, May 29, 2020, in the Memorial Day death of George Floyd. Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter after a shocking video of him kneeling for nearly nine minutes on the neck of Floyd, a black man, set off a wave of protests across the country. (Courtesy of Ramsey County Sheriff's Office via AP)

The murder of George Floyd has sent shockwaves through the country, reverberating in widespread protests and clashes with police, social media blackouts, and increased public consciousness of the black men and women killed under the color of law. A debate rages about what can be done to prevent the badge from cloaking officer harms.

I propose a solution that lies in forcing bystander officers to do their duty and protect the public: legislation subjecting Utah officers to serious criminal liability for failing to intervene in excessive force situations.

We know that evil lurks throughout our society, and tragically, that many murders simply cannot be prevented due to the isolated circumstances of many of these cases. But this murder could have — should have — been prevented by the three other officers tasked with protecting and serving their public.

We all know the name Derek Chauvin. But you should also know the name of Thomas Lane, the former officer who held George’s legs as Chauvin pressed his knee into George’s neck.

The criminal complaint lays out much of what we already knew about how George died, literally begging for his life with his last gasps of air. In reading the complaint, what struck me was that former officer Lane, on two occasions, asked if the officers should roll George to his side. Clearly, Lane recognized that George was in serious peril. Both times, Chauvin refused to release George.

Even after former officer J.A. Kueng stated he could not find a pulse, every officer maintained their position. The other three officers allowed Chauvin to remain in place for nearly two minutes after this stunning revelation. Chauvin’s knee left George’s neck only by Chauvin’s own volition.

Three officers remained paralyzed, likely unable to overcome the internal pressure to avoid confronting someone on our "side.” To paraphrase J.K. Rowling, it takes courage to stand up to our enemies, but even more courage to stand up to our friends.

No civilian bystander could have intervened in George’s murder without encountering a serious risk of getting shot. In George’s hour of need, three officers refused to intervene as his protracted murder occurred inches away.

Chauvin’s criminal liability was immediately clear, reflected by the quick charging decision made by prosecutors. The issue was less clear-cut for the other three officers, and the nation tensely awaited the charging decision by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. On Wednesday, those three officers were charged with aiding and abetting second degree murder. I anticipate an uphill legal battle in obtaining convictions for those officers. The defense arguments will almost certainly center around an absence of conspiracy, a lack of knowledge of Chauvin’s intent, the officers following procedure and chain of command, etc.

We can no longer hope that the good apples will root out the bad. Not anymore. We need more than good intentions. We need criminal culpability. Officers who could — but don’t — act when confronted with a colleague brutalizing a civilian must face criminal consequences.

Utah’s child abuse statute criminalizes conduct when a person allows harm to come to a child in that person’s care. Similarly, Utah should criminalize the specific circumstance where a law enforcement officer, directly involved in the detention of an individual, allows another officer to use force and inflict injury that is not necessary to effectuate the detention. Such legislation will motivate intervention, saving lives. In cases where that fails, this targeted law will make convictions easier to obtain.

Finally, legislation specific to law enforcement sends a powerful message that they are not above the law, and will be held accountable. “I was just following orders” will not fly here.

Samantha Smith

Samantha Smith is an attorney living in Millcreek.