Law enforcement responds to George Floyd killing
by APB Staff
On May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died after being pinned under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
The video recorded by a bystander, now viewed by hundreds of thousands around the world, shows Officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Three other officers on the scene — Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao — stood by, even as Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe,” and pleaded for the officer to stop. Floyd eventually cried out for his mother before losing consciousness and later dying.
The footage sparked outrage in Minneapolis and across the United States, inciting protests and demonstrations in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and galvanizing the Black Lives Matter movement, social justice advocates and others to stand up against police violence and racism.
The incident was also met with universal condemnation from law enforcement across the country — and the responses were swift.
Within 24 hours, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo fired all four officers, and on May 29, Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter (his murder charge has since been upgraded to second-degree). The three other former officers were charged the following week, on June 3, and each faces two counts of aiding and abetting — one for second-degree murder and one for second-degree manslaughter.
“I did not need days or weeks or months or processes or bureaucracies to tell me what occurred out here last Monday was wrong,” Arradondo said to CNN, adding that Floyd’s killing was a “violation of humanity.”
“Mr. Floyd died in our hands, and so I see that as being complicit,” the chief said. “Silence and inaction, you’re complicit. If there was one solitary voice that would have intervened … that’s what I would have hoped for.”
Breaking the silence
Law enforcement leaders from across the country, who in the past would have waited for lengthy investigations to be concluded before making statements, were far from silent. From labor union leaders to police executives and chiefs, many wasted no time publicly denouncing the actions of the Minneapolis officers as inconsistent with the training, protocols and goals of the profession and took the opportunity to reassure their communities that they would not tolerate such excessive uses of force.
Fraternal Order of Police President Patrick Yoes said in a statement, “I do not believe this incident should be allowed to define our profession or the Minneapolis Police Department, but there is no doubt that this incident has diminished the trust and respect our communities have for the men and women of law enforcement. We will work hard to rebuild that trust and we will continue to protect our communities.”
The New York Police Benevolent Association called Floyd’s death a “murder.” “Not one woman or man that has a shield on their chest, a patch on their shoulder — regardless of what arm of law enforcement they come from — will support or defend a murder of an innocent person, and that’s what happened,” president Patrick Lynch said at a press conference attended by hundreds of police officers.
In its statement, the Peace Officers Research Association of California acknowledged that the incident “damaged trust in our nation’s law enforcement agencies,” but pointed at its potential to start discussions needed to move the profession forward. President Brian Marvel said, “We have an opportunity to take this negative tragedy and bring about a positive discussion regarding the need for a national standard on use of force, as well as minimum training and recruitment standards.”
In some statements, leaders commented specifically on the knee-to-neck maneuver Chauvin used to subdue Floyd, which many law enforcement experts have long agreed is dangerous and unnecessary.
“There hasn’t been one person, one police chief, anyone I’ve talked to, who doesn’t see this exactly the same way. The police officer and those who were there that day failed George Floyd,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told NBC. “Every police officer that looked at that video who knows anything about tactics shook their head.”
The autopsy report released by Hennepin County, Minnesota, revealed that Floyd’s heart and lungs stopped functioning “while being restrained” by the officers. According to the Minneapolis P.D.’s policy manual, neck restraints or chokeholds are reserved for life-or-death situations. The video footage showed that Floyd posed no such threat to Chauvin or the other officers.
“There is no need to see more video,” David Roddy, the police chief in Chattanooga, Tennessee, tweeted. “There is no need to wait to see how ‘it plays out.’ There is no need to put a knee on someone’s neck for nine minutes. There is a need to do something. If you wear a badge and you don’t have an issue with this … turn it in.”
“What we saw in Minnesota was deeply disturbing. It was wrong,” NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said in a tweet. “We must take a stand and address it. We must come together, condemn these actions and reinforce who we are as members of the NYPD. This is not acceptable anywhere.”
Opening peaceful dialogues
In the days following Floyd’s death, protesters took to the streets in cities across the country to express their anger and sorrow. Chants of “I can’t breathe” and “No justice, no peace” echoed throughout peaceful marches and demonstrations. Joining many of the protesters were law enforcement officers, who took time from policing the gatherings to show solidarity.
In Michigan, Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson took off his helmet and had his officers put down their batons before addressing a crowd of protesters in Flint. “Don’t think for a second that he represents cops from all over the county and around this nation,” said the sheriff, referring to Chauvin, in viral footage shared by protesters on social media.
“We want to be with you all for real,” Swanson said. “I want to make this a parade, not a protest.” After high-fiving a few people, he then asked the crowd what they wanted the cops to do, and they chanted, “Walk with us! Walk with us! Walk with us!” So they did. At the end of the march, the sheriff reassured his community that their cops supported them: “I love you guys. The police love you.”
In a symbolic gesture, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen linked arms with protesters during a peaceful march. “We will stand with you, and we will walk with you,” he said. CBS4 reported that Pazen was seen raising his fist in the air with protesters. “This is their march, this is our march,” he told the news outlet, adding that it was important for the police to collaborate with the community. “It’s our work, this is our city, we have to work together so that we don’t tear it apart.”
In Hawaii, Kauai Police Chief Todd Raybuck and Captain Rod Green attended peaceful protests not only to show their support, but also to have candid conversations with the public about race, policing and more in an effort to shed harmful stereotypes and focus on achieving change together.
“There’s a picture that seems to be constantly painted and a narrative that seems to be always told when you only talk about a white officer and an unarmed black man,” Green, who is African-American, told Honolulu Civil Beat. “But it’s insensitive to paint an entire community one way just as it’s insensitive to paint all police officers with the same broad brushstroke.”
Raybuck told the news outlet that he’s been engaging in conversations with his officers and new recruits about the Floyd incident and its aftermath. He’s been telling his officers to ignore the media’s antagonistic narrative toward “all cops,” explaining to them that the protesters are upset about police brutality disproportionately affecting communities of color.
“What people are saying because of the events that happened in Minneapolis isn’t an indictment to say that Todd Raybuck is a racist,” Raybuck said. “What they’re saying is, ‘We’re tired of seeing black people die by the hands of people in uniform.’ And, you know what, I am, too.”
In addition to speeches, many officers decided to let their actions speak for themselves. In Washington, D.C., officers lined up and took a knee in front of Trump International Hotel as protesters marched by. In Ferguson, Missouri, protesters and police kneeled for over nine minutes in memory of Floyd. In Coral Gables, Florida, a peaceful protest concluded with protesters and law enforcement kneeling and bowing their heads together in prayer.
Not all encounters between police and protesters remained peaceful. Demonstrations nationwide devolved into chaos, shootings, looting and vandalism, requiring law enforcement officers to respond with tear gas, rubber bullets and more to protect public and property as well as themselves. Nights of unrest also resulted in curfews being imposed in major cities to curb violence, and governors in some states mobilized their state National Guards for added security.
During these volatile moments, police found themselves the targets of violence from protesters. According to the Department of Justice, more than 700 federal, state and local law enforcement officers have been injured on the job during the nationwide protests. The attacks have ranged from minor cuts and bruises to more serious, life-threatening injuries.
In Las Vegas, a police officer was shot in the head while attempting to disperse a group of protesters near the Circus Circus casino on the Strip. In St. Louis, four officers were stuck by gunfire and had to be treated for non-life-threatening injuries. In Buffalo, New York, an SUV drove through a line of officers in riot gear, leaving two injured. Around the country, officers have reported injuries from being pelted by bricks and other dangerous objects, as well as being struck or attacked during melees.
Police, however, also found themselves under fire for alleged uses of excessive force against protesters and instigating violence at peaceful gatherings.
In Buffalo, New York, two members of the police department’s emergency response team were suspended after being captured on video pushing a 75-year-old protester to the ground.
In another incident caught on video, Kansas City, Missouri, officers were seen pepper-spraying and physically restraining a protester after he yelled at and criticized officers for using excessive force. The incident is currently under review by the department.
In Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, an officer was recorded pushing a black protester who had been on her knees. The officer, who has since been placed on administrative leave, was seen being quickly reprimanded by a black officer on the force.
In addition, officers across the county have drawn public ire for using tear gas and flash grenades, attacking protesters with riot gear, shooting rubber bullets and other tactics viewed by many as overly aggressive.
Calls for reform
Along with protests, Floyd’s death ignited calls from federal, state and local lawmakers and the public to defund the police, with many seeing it as a solution to police brutality and racism.
Defunding the police would mean reducing police budgets and directing more funding toward community programs, such as education, public health and housing. It is argued that investing in such programs will address factors that contribute to crime (e.g., homelessness and poverty) and shift police responsibilities away from societal problems that they are ill-equipped or not trained to deal with. Advocates also argue that in addition to defunding, certain duties (e.g., mental-health-related calls) can be relegated to social workers or other specialized response teams.
Many law enforcement professionals, however, believe the call to defund the police is a knee-jerk reaction that will not significantly accomplish what’s necessary for impactful police reform. What’s needed, many argue, is national policing standards that create uniform policy, law and training requirements. Many also argue that crime will not just vanish if police are defunded. Allocating fewer resources to police will lead to an increase in crime, especially in vulnerable communities that don’t have the resources to protect themselves (e.g., hire private security). (See our Opinion/Editorial section on page 22 for more viewpoints on police reform from law enforcement professionals.)
Despite a recent poll from ABC News and Ipsos indicating that only 34% of Americans support defunding the police, some cities decided to tackle police reform immediately.
On June 7, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council announced their intent to disband the police department and opt for community-led safety initiatives. “Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it, and to re-create systems of public safety that actually keep us safe,” City Council president Lisa Bender said to a crowd gathered that Sunday. Five days later, on June 12, the council unanimously passed a resolution to replace the police department with a new model of policing. According to the resolution, the council will start a yearlong process “of community engagement, research, and structural change to create a transformative new model for cultivating safety.” The resolution also created the “Future of Community Safety Work Group,” which will include staff from various city departments.
Days before the Minneapolis City Council’s announcement, in Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced during a press conference that the city would not be increasing its police budget, and would direct $250 million to community programs and initiatives. While the money will have to be cut from city operations, Garcetti and City Council President Nury Martinez said as much as $150 million would come from the LAPD.
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a package of police reform bills into law on June 12. The 10-bill package includes a ban on chokeholds; a repeal of Civil Rights Law 50-a, a half-century-old law that kept police disciplinary records secret; a requirement that state police wear body cams and more.
As of this writing, several other cities have doubled down on similar reform efforts, and on the federal level, congressional Democrats introduced the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, a sweeping reform bill that deals with police accountability, transparency, improving training and policies, and punishing hate crimes. Senate Republicans also unveiled their own reform proposal, the Justice Act, which focuses on transparency and training.
President Donald Trump also recently signed an executive order encouraging police nationwide to “meet the most current, professional standards for the use of force, including tactics for de-escalation.” But at an event in Dallas days before signing the order, the president cautioned against judging all police because of the actions of a few “bad apples.”
“We have to work together to confront bigotry and prejudice wherever they appear, but will make no progress and heal no wounds by falsely labeling tens of millions of decent Americans as racist or bigots,” Trump said.
Floyd’s death has forced the U.S. to face the issues of systemic racism and use of force in policing head-on. The debate over whether police nationwide should be defunded or reformed has made the future of law enforcement unclear. However, one thing’s for certain: Law enforcement leaders have inserted themselves into the conversation at the local, state and national level from the very beginning and have become increasingly vocal about what needs to be done to make meaningful change in the profession.
As seen in the July issue of American Police Beat magazine.
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