Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


Thomas Lane, a former Minneapolis police officer on trial for aiding and abetting the death of George Floyd at the hands of a fellow officer, pleaded guilty in the state case on Wednesday, rightly acknowledging his responsibility in Floyd's murder and accepting a sentence of three years in prison.

Lane was one of four cops on the scene that day when then-officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for nine minutes, murdering him as a crowd watched. Lane held down Floyd's legs while former officer J. Alexander Kueng restrained his midsection. Former officer Tou Thao prevented bystanders from interfering. Lane, who was in his first week on the job, asked Chauvin at the time whether Floyd should be rolled onto his side, but Chauvin, the senior officer on the scene, signaled no.

Lane, Thao and Kueng were convicted earlier this year in federal court of violating Floyd's civil rights, resulting in his death.

Lane's guilty plea is an important development in the events that have unfolded after Floyd's death. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison told an editorial writer that "whenever you acknowledge wrongdoing, it starts the process of healing. We all do things we wish we could take back. The way forward is to acknowledge responsibility."

By contrast, Chauvin, who was sentenced in April to 22 ½ years in prison, is appealing his murder conviction, arguing that protests and publicity influenced jurors' judgment. This is despite the fact that Chauvin is seen on video squeezing the life out of Floyd a minute at a time.

Ellison said that makes Lane's admission even more important because it acknowledges a simple yet powerful truth: "If you are a peace officer, you may have to intervene on a colleague who is not upholding the high standards of the badge," he said. "This plea reinforces the idea that simply saying 'I was following orders' is not going to be OK." The real test, of course, will come the next time an officer encounters such a situation, but, Ellison said, "this is an excellent way to start building a new and better culture."

The Rev. Alfred Babington-Johnson, founder and CEO of the Stairstep Foundation, which has been working for 30 years to build the African American community, told an editorial writer that the Floyd case has produced important outcomes so far. First, he said, was the idea that officers could get fired, prosecuted and convicted for their actions.

A second, he said, came when "the blue line was broken, with [former Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria] Arradondo and others coming forward to testify." Lane's plea, he said Wednesday, "is another positive step. Not that there could ever be justice, because nothing brings George Floyd back. But accountability? Yes. The idea of saying 'I did something wrong' goes a long way for me in terms of trying to change the narrative, to change the mindset that there is an impunity that goes with the job, that one can do anything with no consequences."

There are, Babington-Johnson said, "miles to go before there is trust. But this is a positive step in the right direction. Hopefully we can continue the momentum in reinforcing this idea that there are boundaries, that the person who is in your custody is also in your care."

The Floyd case indeed has been wrenching for the survivors, the community, the public and for law enforcement. Minneapolis police are still under a Department of Justice investigation. A state human rights report, the result of a two-year investigation, chronicled a pattern of racism in the MPD that is at the top of a long list of things that need to change to set a new standard of policing that respects the community and individuals.

Law enforcement is a difficult profession under the best of circumstances, yet so necessary to a civil, well-functioning society. The recent uptick in violent crime is proof of that.

If we don't get this right, little else will matter.