Geography Helped Kill George Floyd

Social science suggests that racism and geography form a toxic mix that triggers police violence. Here’s how to make it better.

“I can’t breathe.”

A powerful moment during former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial for the killing of George Floyd came when the prosecutor played the entire video showing Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes.

Watching it along with the jury, the question that kept coming up for me is why? Why did Chauvin do it? Why did he ignore Floyd as he cried out, “I can’t breathe” 27 times? That’s a central question in the criminal trial of Chauvin.

Ultimately, the trial should be seen, not just as the trial of a rogue police officer, but as a trial of policing in the context of systemic racial segregation and racial dehumanization. It’s no coincidence that police shootings are higher in certain places than others, or that more of the victims live in these neighborhoods. In some ways, the proper question about police violence is not “why?” but “where?”

Millions of us find ourselves in the position of the jury this week—but in my case, my positions seems very close indeed. I am a professor of constitutional law at Cleveland Marshall College of Law in Cleveland—a big Midwestern city with policing issues of its own. My scholarship has focused on issues of systemic racial inequality and segregation. As such, I have to try to help my students (from many diverse backgrounds) make sense of what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans killed by police. As it turns out, understanding the trial requires understanding where it is taking place.

Chauvin’s cruelty seems inexplicable and completely arbitrary. Even Chauvin’s colleagues, fellow police officers, testified that Chauvin’s actions were not proper police procedure, that his actions were out of line. How can jurors empathize with Chauvin and see the incident from his perspective if they simply cannot make sense of his actions? For that reason, the possibility of a conviction seems at least possible, if not likely.

The prosecution has done an excellent job of keeping the jury focused on seeing the incident from Floyd’s perspective. When witnesses break down in tears as they recall how they helplessly watched Chauvin slowly kill Floyd, it is impossible not to empathize with them and with Floyd.

If Chauvin is convicted, however, we shouldn’t conclude that Chauvin’s actions reflect only his individual sociopathy, and that his actions are not evidence of institutional racism in policing. Chauvin’s actions are consistent with countless police killings of African Americans. There are two central elements of Floyd’s killing that can help us understand that–racial segregation and dehumanization.

From my vantage point in Cleveland, I cannot help but think about Tamir Rice’s killing and the trial that never took place.

On November 22, 2014, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy, was shot and killed by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann. Rice was playing by himself at a park, holding an airsoft pellet gun, when a police cruiser drove up to him. Two officers jumped out of the vehicle and one of them shot Rice twice. Rice immediately fell to the ground, lifeless. The entire incident took two seconds.

The police officer in the Tamir Rice killing claimed that he thought Rice was dangerous and posed a lethal threat. He claimed that the situation required quick, instinctive action, and he took it.

In 2015, a grand jury declined to indict him. The prosecutor who oversaw the grand jury justified the decision, describing the shooting as “a perfect storm of human error,” not intentional homicide.

If Loehmann’s actions were instantaneous, Chauvin’s were slow, deliberate, and, it seems, calculated. In his opening statement, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell emphasized that Chauvin was in complete control of the situation, and used lethal force in total disregard of Floyd’s life.

Other than race, is there anything connecting the Rice and Floyd killings? The answer is an unequivocal yes. The key to understand the deep connection is to ask the where question. Where exactly did the killings take place?

George Floyd’s murder took place at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. That intersection operates as a border or buffer separating “the whiter neighborhoods east of Chicago Avenue from the ‘heart of Black Minneapolis’” west of Chicago Avenue. Racial segregation in Minneapolis is a major reason that the city was ranked in 2018 as the fourth-worst city in the nation for African Americans to live in.

Rice was killed in Cleveland’s Cudell neighborhood on the west side of the Cuyahoga River. Cleveland is classified as a hyper-segregated city, ranking as the fifth most racially segregated city in the nation. While the overall racial composition of the neighborhood is mixed, the park in which Rice was killed and the nearby area had been known for criminal gang activity. Just a few weeks before Rice’s death, 38 members of a gang which had operated in and near the park were arrested. A prosecutor called the gang “a plague of locusts wreaking havoc against everything in their paths.”

 Both killings took place in racially segregated cities. And that connection is not just salient, it is deadly.

Residential racial segregation can help explain the spate of police killings of unarmed African Americans. The greater the level of racial segregation in a state or city, several studies have found, the higher the levels of racial disparity in rates of police shootings of unarmed persons. Thus, racial disparities in police shootings in Chicago, the most heavily racially segregated city in the United States, are four times higher than in Aurora, Colo, the least racially segregated city. At the state level, racial disparities in police shootings are eight times higher in New York, the most racially segregated state, than in Hawaii, the least segregated.

Racial segregation, in other words, kills Black people.

Why are Black people more likely to be shot and killed by police officers in segregated states, cities, and neighborhoods? One theory is that police officers of all races may feel more threatened and hyper-alert for potential danger when patrolling a racially segregated neighborhood, leading them to make mistakes A study found that, when an individual is exposed to “perceived dangerous neighborhoods that are stereotype consistent with Black racial stereotypes,” the individual was more likely to be affected with racial bias when making a shooting decision. Boston University Public Health Professor Michael Siegel explained that “[r]acial bias was markedly greater when told a neighborhood was located in ‘South Central’ as opposed to ‘Beverly Hills,’ even though the scenarios were identical.” Just by entering a distressed racially segregated neighborhood, two scholars of police behavior wrote in 2014, “various emotional and cognitive processes that can trigger the use of excessive force by police” are activated.

In Chauvin’s case, his defense has suggested that the dozen, mostly Black bystanders watching him were terrifying. That actually suggests his emotional and cognitive processes were in fact triggered, causing him to forget his training and leading him to use excessive, unnecessary force against Floyd.

What might those potentially lethal emotional and cognitive processes be? One process may be dehumanization–the process of treating and viewing another person or a class of people as less than human, subhuman or nonhuman. Countless empirical studies show that dehumanizing a class of people leads inexorably to the infliction of harm and violence against that class. When a police officer enters a racially segregated neighborhood, dehumanizing beliefs and feelings about Blacks may be activated, which then lead them to arbitrarily and unnecessarily inflict harm on Blacks in that neighborhood. Dehumanization and racial segregation may explain both Rice’s and Floyd’s killings.

What are possible solutions to racial segregation related police killings of Blacks? One answer–end racial segregation. Even though that will not happen anytime soon, to further that goal means transforming policing into what Prof. Monica Bell of Yale Law School calls “anti-segregation policing.” Anti-segregation policing acknowledges that current policing practices contribute “to the reproduction of residential segregation,” and seeks to eliminate such practices. Anti-segregation focuses on ending what Tufts University sociologist Daanika Gordon calls the “pattern in which predominantly Black neighborhoods are simultaneously over-policed when it comes to surveillance and social control, and under-policed when it comes to emergency services.”

 Reducing police killings of Blacks is essential for anti-segregation policing. Implicit bias and dehumanization training of police officers that emphasizes that spatial context matters could be helpful. When police officers enter into a perceived racially segregated neighborhood, they must be taught to be even more vigilant about taking steps to check their racial biases and their propensity to dehumanize African Americans.

Training police officers to not dehumanize means teaching them to see the “spark of life” in blacks. The “spark of life” refers to a phase in a criminal trial in which witnesses testify about the positive traits of the victim. This phase is unique to Minnesota trial procedure; it is controversial. In Chauvin’s trial, Floyd’s brother gave “spark of life” testimony about all the things about Floyd that made him human, such as his love for his mother and his proclivity for making banana mayonnaise sandwiches. The spark of life phase is an anti-dehumanization process, and that process could work not just with juries, but also with police officers to teach them to see the Black people they are sworn to protect in their full humanity.

As I watch the trial from the city of Tamir Rice, from a law school that trains others to protect citizens’ rights, I am hopeful that the jury will convict Chauvin. And if we can contextualize Chauvin’s actions by locating them firmly within the larger pattern of racially discriminatory police killings of African Americans in racially segregated cities, then we can begin to reorient policing away from reinforcing segregation to dismantling it

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

Reginald C. Oh

Reginald C. Oh teaches Constitutional Law at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University.