The Derek Chauvin trial is ‘opening old wounds’ for police violence victims

Even though it has been nearly four years since a jury acquitted Tulsa, Oklahoma, Police Officer Betty Shelby in the killing of Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old father of four, his twin remembers the trial like it was yesterday. 

“What was mainly heart-wrenching was to hear her, see her, the person who killed my brother. She showed no remorse,” Tiffany Crutcher recalled.  

Terence Crutcher was standing near his car when Tulsa police officers, including Shelby, responded to a call about a stalled vehicle in September 2016. Shelby said she shot Terence in self-defense as he reached into his car. But video of the shooting showed his hands in the air as he moved closer to his vehicle. Shelby was charged with manslaughter.  

“They played the video, they slowed it down,” Tiffany Crutcher said. “We saw the blood and we heard everything. That was my brother’s blood. I had to put my head in my lap, my dad had to hold my hand. They did everything to vilify my brother. And I ran out of the courtroom, I broke out crying.” 

She went on to start the Terence Crutcher Foundation in her brother’s honor to combat police brutality in Tulsa. But the trial still affects the family years later, she said.

“We have to relive it every day we wake up,” she said.

Tiffany Crutcher, center, the twin of Terence Crutcher, who was killed by a Tulsa police officer, marches with the Rev. Al Sharpton, left, and the attorney Ben Crump, right, in Tulsa, Okla., on Sept. 27, 2016.Sue Ogrocki / AP file

Today, George Floyd’s family is enduring this retraumatization during former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin’s trial. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, after kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes last year. 

For more than a week, Floyd’s relatives have repeatedly listened to the details of his death and watched footage of the final moments of his life. Floyd’s nephew, Brandon Williams, said he walked out of the courtroom because he couldn’t bear to watch the graphic video. Floyd’s brother, Philonise, said recently that it was “heart-wrenching” to relive his brother’s killing. 

“It was an emotional day, sitting there watching my brother being tortured to death, screaming for our mom, talking about his kids,” Philonise Floyd said. “It was devastating.”

Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, speaks alongside his nephew, Brandon Williams, right, and the attorney Ben Crump, left, during a news conference outside the Hennepin County Government Center on March 29, 2021, in Minneapolis.Brandon Bell / Getty Images

Mental health professionals have, in recent years, highlighted the emotional and psychological toll racist violence can have on Black people. From videos of police brutality to watching criminal trials with bated breath, the stress of such experiences is well-documented. But for the families of victims of police violence, emotional stressors are heightened, said Maysa Akbar, chief diversity officer of the American Psychological Association and the author of “Urban Trauma: A Legacy of Racism.”

While the world watches the attempt to serve legal justice for another person killed by police, Akbar notes that for the family involved, justice in court doesn’t always amount to healing.

“There is going to be retraumatization that will and can occur every single time the story is retold,” she said. “There is racial trauma that has been persistent throughout this entire situation, from the moment of George Floyd’s” death, all the way through “this entire process.”

While Black people watching the case from afar can experience “vicarious trauma” — the emotional impact of being exposed to another person’s pain — there is a particular plight that belongs solely to those closest to the victims. Experts have said relatives of victims of police violence can experience physical and emotional manifestations of trauma including effects on long-term mental health, survivor’s guilt and even post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“Racial trauma is an emotional injury. It’s absolutely heightened with the families,” Akbar added. “It’s going to impact the way they’re going to be able to move forward as a family. There’s no amount of justice that will ever justify what happened to George Floyd and the impact it has on the family.”

A 2009 study found that “post-conflict justice” efforts such as trials and truth commissions don’t necessarily heal clinical psychological trauma like PTSD, and such events can actually leave people feeling hopeless and aggravate their psychological wounds. However, in 2004, a study noted that criminal proceedings may not have a great negative impact on victims. But the family of Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old shot to death by then-police Officer Roy Oliver in Balch Springs, Texas, in 2017, has a different experience. 

“It’s never-ending,” Odell Edwards, Jordan’s father, said of the experience. He added that the Chauvin trial isn’t easy to hear about. “It brings back so many memories about what I went through. It was hard during the trial, seeing the guy that did that to my son. Every day it was hard for me. I had a hard time sleeping.” 

Former Balch Springs Police Officer Roy Oliver, foreground left, stands next to defense attorney Miles Brissette, right, after being sentenced to 15 years in prison for the murder of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards on Aug. 29, 2018, at the Frank Crowley Courts Building, in Dallas.Rose Baca / The Dallas Morning News via AP pool file

Jordan was riding in a Chevrolet Impala with two brothers and two of his friends the night of April 29, 2017. Police responded to a call about a noisy house party and saw the car outside. Oliver testified that he thought the car was going to hit his partner and so he fired inside, killing Jordan. Oliver was convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

“Odell has had to continuously relive this with his family,” the family’s attorney Daryl Washington said of Jordan’s father. “It’s been really tough. Talking to Odell, whenever there’s a trial or a police shooting, it’s almost like opening old wounds again for the family.”

Although Oliver is among very few police officers to be convicted of murder, Edwards said he doesn’t feel 15 years is enough time for the man who killed his son. And for Tiffany Crutcher, the pain of seeing Shelby all but absolved of her brother’s slaying only adds to the trauma of the event, she said. 

Betty Shelby leaves the courtroom with her husband, Dave, right, after the jury in her case began deliberations in Tulsa, Okla., on May 17, 2017.Sue Ogrocki / AP file

“After the ‘not guilty’ verdict, we were all numb. For the jury to say ‘we don’t feel that she’s blameless’ … that was another blow,” she said. “We thought we were on the pathway to justice. And after the verdict, you see the tears of grown men and community and friends, in pictures you see folks on their knees wailing because we didn’t get justice.”

Akbar said that because “seeking justice doesn’t equate to healing,” it’s important for families to have access to resources such as therapy and counseling to minimize the emotional tax of criminal trials. She said such psychological well-being requires an intentional approach, and highlighted the importance of being in community with others.

“Become part of a grief group with others who have experienced something similar,” she advised. “The family isn’t able to shut out what is happening in front of them, but there are ways they can minimize the impact through psychological help and support.”

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