The Thinning Blue Line

I paid another extended visit to the Derek Chauvin trial yesterday. I wanted to see Minneapolis police Chief Medaria Arradondo’s testimony. I was not disappointed.

The Chief’s demeanor goes against all the cop stereotypes. He’s a calm and soft-spoken man who thinks before speaking as opposed to the blustery cops we’re more familiar with from both real life and fiction. These qualities made him a devastating witness for the prosecution. I was tempted to make a Marlene Dietrich or Tyrone Power joke but decided to skip it; more or less.

The Chief made it clear that Chauvin’s actions on that fateful May evening violated departmental policy:

“To continue to apply that level of force to a person proned out, handcuffed behind their back — that in no way, shape or form is anything that is by policy,” said the chief, Medaria Arradondo. “It is not part of our training. And it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values.”

It’s extraordinarily rare for a police chief to testify against one of their officers but it’s not the first time for Arradondo:

 In 2017, he became its first Black chief after his predecessor was forced out in the wake of a police shooting: Another officer, Mohamed Noor, was accused of murder in the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk, who had called the police to report what she thought was a sexual assault of a woman in an alley behind her home.

In one of the few previous instances of a police chief testifying for the prosecution against an officer, Chief Arradondo took the stand in that case as well; Mr. Noor was ultimately convicted of third-degree murder.

The Chief kept his cool while under cross-examination by pesky, annoying defense attorney Eric Nelson. He has a nasty habit of ending every question with either “right” or “agreed.” He laid several rhetorical traps for the Chief who declined to take the bait.

Given the weakness of the defense’s case, Nelson kept posing hypothetical questions to muddy the waters. Arradondo listened carefully and thought before replying as well as asking Nelson to repeat his questions. Nelson is a wordy lawyer who often trips himself up because he’s in love with his own voice. It’s an occupational hazard.

The Chief has a long record of independence: he sued his own department for racial discrimination and served as the head of internal affairs; not a post that’s guaranteed to win friends among old school coppers.

Arradando was the third senior police officer to testify against Chauvin. His former supervisor and the head of the department’s homicide bureau chimed in earlier. The thin blue line may not be vanishing in Minneapolis but it’s eroding.

One thing I’m not going to do is to predict a verdict. That’s a sucker’s game. I do, however, think that the Chief’s testimony reduced the chances of an outright acquittal as has the defendant’s demeanor. He rarely makes eye contact with the jury instead scribbling notes even when nothing is happening in the courtroom. Chauvin is lucky he’s required to wear a mask: I have a hunch he’s scowling under it. He’s such a cold fish that the visitor’s seat behind the defense table has been empty every day. I’d feel sorry for another defendant but not this guy.

Back to possible outcomes. It will take more than one holdout to hang this jury. It’s difficult for a lone juror to resist peer pressure and refuse to compromise. That’s why Henry Fonda was cast in Twelve Angry Men. It was plausible that the guy who played Young Mr. Lincoln, Tom Joad, Wyatt Earp, and Mr. Roberts would stand on principle and buck the majority. There are few Henry Fondas in real life. It always comes back to John Ford movies with me, doesn’t it?

I’m cautiously optimistic about the trial. My only quibble with the prosecution is they’re using too many lawyers: five by my reckoning. That gives Nelson the chance to play David to the prosecution’s Goliath. Nobody roots for Goliath. But given the complexity of the evidence, it’s understandable. Besides, Nelson is *not* a likeable lawyer so this is a push.

The blue line may be thinning in Minneapolis but whether or not it will happen elsewhere is a different story. If a department has a reform minded chief, it can happen, but we’ve ridden the reform rollercoaster several times in New Orleans. We had a reform chief in Richard Pennington from 1994-2002. NOPD suffered a relapse of “old school” policing after the storm and federal flood so pronounced that a consent decree was imposed by the Feds in 2013. It requires not only strong leadership but eternal vigilance. And you know what they say about that.

A final note about Chief Arradando’s surname. It’s similar to that of longtime WWL-TV weatherman Carl Arredondo.  Carl, too, is a calm man who radiates knowledge and authority. He was my go-to guy during hurricane season: when he looked grim on the Friday before Katrina hit, I knew we were in for it. He had to retire in 2019 because he’s going blind. I wish him well. The same goes for Chief Arradando. Hopefully, he won’t reap the whirlwind after this trial concludes.

The last word goes to Roxy Music:

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