Accountability for Derek Chauvin is a Start, But We Have Such a Long Way to Go

Much needs to drastically change all over the Midwest, and the upcoming trial for the Milwaukee police officer who killed Joel Acevedo is going to be an important moment for police accountability.

The Recombobulation Area is an award-winning weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Protesters rally in front of a mural for Joel Acevedo, who was killed by off-duty police officer Michael Mattioli. The trial has been delayed and body camera footage has been held back. Photo by LaTasha Lux.

As news broke on Tuesday afternoon that the Minneapolis jury had reached a verdict, the fact that there was even a question as to whether Derek Chauvin would be found guilty on all three counts is in itself an indictment of the system that surrounds policing in America. 

We all watched Chauvin murder George Floyd. There was not much of a question as to what truly happened. That was a murder. That we were unsure that the jury would determine as much is illustrative of our collective doubt in the ability of the system to get it right even in the face of overwhelming evidence. 

As Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a press conference following the verdict, “I would not call today's verdict justice, however, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice, and now the cause of justice is in your hands."

A first step this may be, but that just shows just how much further we have to go and how much work needs to be done before true justice is achieved. True justice in this case would mean that George Floyd’s daughter, Gianna, who is now seven years old, would grow up with her father in her life. 

A verdict like the one delivered to Derek Chauvin is an outlier. It is extremelyrare for police officers who have killed people to be convicted of a crime. In 2020, according to Mapping Police Violence, 1,127 people were killed by police, and officers were charged with a crime in only 16 of these cases. Were it not for 17-year-old Darnella Frazier filming the murder, things would be much different. Just take a look at the way the Minneapolis Police Department initially characterized Floyd’s death

Here in Wisconsin, too, we’ve seen example after example in Wisconsin of police officers not only escaping charges, but returning to duty unpunished. Kenosha Police Officer Rusten Sheskey, who was not charged after shooting Jacob Blake in the back seven times, recently returned to regular duty. Former Wauwatosa Police Officer Joseph Mensah, who killed three people while on duty in a matter of five years but did not face charges in any of the incidents, resigned from Wauwatosa in November (he’ll still be paid through the end of 2021), but was hired by the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department in January. There’s still a long way to go before accountability catches up to where it needs to be. 

The Black Lives Matter movement grew in 2020 to become perhaps the largest movement in U.S. history. Throughout American history, Black people have time and time again been proven right in their cries for freedom, equality and justice. It’s the height of arrogance to think that this time, those cries are unwarranted. 

Chauvin’s conviction may go down as a significant, historic decision in American history, but the true change that needs to happen is the change that would prevent such a tragedy from occuring in the first place. 

George Floyd should be alive today. Daunte Wright should be alive today. Adam Toledo should be alive today. Tamir Rice should be alive today. Michael Brown should be alive today. Philando Castile should be alive today. Dontre Hamilton should be alive today. Jay Anderson should be alive today. Ty'Rese West should be alive today. Derek Williams should be alive today. 

That so many of these cases have happened in the Midwest is not a fact that should be lost here. Change desperately needs to come to this part of the country. As those from Milwaukee’s Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) said in a statement wednesday, “Our communities cannot afford to go back to business as usual.”

Change needs to come to Wisconsin and Milwaukee, too. The day following the verdict, Gov. Evers signed an executive order directing law enforcement to update use of force policies, and a state legislative task force brought forth long delayed law enforcement reform recommendations -- although many of those stem from bills dating back four years, recommendations stop short of banning chokeholds or no-knock warrants, and key Republican leaders have signaled a difficult path ahead for the legislation that’s left many highly skeptical that this task force was a serious endeavor. It all falls well short of meeting the moment. 

In Milwaukee, a recent report showed that city police “failed to document a justification for 91% of frisks and 68% of use-of-force instances that were related to traffic stops in the first half of 2020,” and that “of more than 250 frisks performed during that time, 83% were conducted on Black people.” This comes just two years after the city of Milwaukee paid a $3.4 million settlement over its stop-and-frisk practices after being sued over targeting Black and Latino people through racial profiling. We need to do a better job of bridging accountability to real, lasting change.

The Acevedo family holds a protest in front of the now-former residence of Milwaukee police officer Michael Mattioli. Out on bail, Mattioli has since sold the house where he killed Acevedo. Photo by Diana Schmidt.

An extremely important upcoming case in Milwaukee is another where accountability is going to be necessary, too. 

Almost exactly one year ago, Joel Acevedo was killed by off-duty police officer Michael Mattioli. Mattioli, a 13-year veteran of the Milwaukee Police Department who was hosting an illegal house party during the height of “Safer-at-Home,” put Acevedo in a chokehold for 10 minutes after a physical altercation occurred at the party. Acevedo died from his injuries about a week later. Though Acevedo’s family has repeatedly called for the release of the body camera footage surrounding the death, it has not yet been released. Audio of the 911 call was released late last year, which showed Mattioli identifying himself as an officer, and one of the last things Acevedo said was, “Let me go home.”

Mattioli was charged with first-degree reckless homicide. He has since quit the department, and has been free on $50,000 bail since last year. The trial date has not yet been set

When that trial happens, accountability must come for Michael Mattioli, too, just as it has for Derek Chauvin.

But accountability is not justice, and not even justice is enough to right the wrong of what occurred. 

On the day of the verdict, the person I kept thinking about was Gianna Floyd. I hope that the decision the jury came to will bring her a greater sense of peace as she moves through life, but any measure of accountability isn’t going to be enough for her. What she deserved is to grow up with her dad around. 

We need to continue working for a world where what happened to Gianna Floyd doesn’t happen anymore. 

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

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