Victor J. Blue/The New York Times

People celebrate the guilty verdict for former police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. In a virtual event, Cornell faculty react to the trial and discuss police reform.

April 29, 2021

Faculty Reflect on Chauvin Verdict in Roundtable Discussion

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In the wake of Derek Chauvin’s conviction on April 20, President Martha Pollack announced a faculty roundtable to explore what the verdict means for racial justice and national policy changes moving forward. 

The discussion took place virtually on Tuesday afternoon with a panel discussion including five Cornell faculty members and was moderated by Jamie Joshua, Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the Johnson School. 

Joshua kicked off the discussion by asking the panelists about their initial reactions to the trial. 

Prof. Jamein Cunningham, economics and policy analysis and management, said he was apprehensive about the verdict before it was reached, given that a conviction was not guaranteed despite the evidence and momentum from last year’s movement surrounding racial justice. 

“There was still this angst that, you know, he will still be acquitted,” Cunningham said. “And that’s not necessarily a good feeling to have when you’re thinking about social justice”

Prof. Joe Margulies, law and government, echoed Cunningham’s concern before a verdict was reached, noting that the system still has a long way to go. 

“Anybody who thinks that this is evidence that that reform is afoot, or that reform will work is kidding themselves.” Margulies said. 

As faculty began debating what real reform should look like, several noted a divide that exists between police and civilians under the current system, particularly as so many police are armed even when responding to non-violent calls.

Prof. Sherry Colb, law, pointed out that police departments across the country are beginning to respond to calls for change and that recent policing reforms, like those in Ithaca, have begun to address this issue. Colb said that replacing an armed police officer with an unarmed community solution worker could remove the feeling of dominance that often causes minor incidents to escalate into violence. 

Prof. Aziz Rana, law, argued that reform should focus on addressing social welfare problems, rather than policing methods like training and body cameras because most incidents where police officers end up being the first response usually do not require police intervention. 

“What that’ll likely do is just increased budgets for police departments, when really what we should probably be in the business of is fairly systematically dismantling how policing functions in the US,” Rana said. 

Margulies described these reforms as “reducing the blue footprint.” However, he is skeptical that large scale reforms, like those in Ithaca, will happen on a national scale. 

The discussion also touched on calls for racial equity that were happening outside of police reform. Prof. Ravi Kanbur, economics, noted how corporations have thrown support behind the Black Lives Matter movement in the past year. Kanbur noted that while corporations saw short-term stock market rewards after committing to support social justice issues, they are less willing to accept costs in the long term. 

Rana expressed skepticism at corporate action on social issues, noting that corporations are unwilling to cease donating to politicians who oppose social issues but support profit motives.

“The solution here is social movement mobilization and action rather than expecting corporate elites to be the vanguard of racial justice initiatives,” he said. 

The discussion was followed by a question & answer session from the audience. The last question posed to the panel was whether the Chauvin verdict was an example of justice or accountability. 

“I think it is justice,” said Colb. “It’s not the entirety of what needs to happen but it’s really important.”