Tuesday marks one week since the harrowing video of George Floyd pinned to the ground beneath a Minneapolis police officer’s knee went viral on social media.
The officer at the center of the video, Derek Chauvin, was arrested Friday and charged with causing Floyd’s death. All four of the officers at the scene were fired from the force. As activists call for the arrest of the other officers who were on the scene, police nationwide — who in the past have sometimes rallied behind officers accused of using excessive force or shooting suspects without good cause — are lining up to denounce what some are frankly calling “murder.”
The video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes — several minutes past the time when he appeared unresponsive — left little room for ambiguity about what happened.
“I was waiting for someone to push the officer off,” Camden County Police Chief Joseph D. Wysocki told Yahoo News. “We watched a murder unfold. … It was disgusting to see.”
Wysocki is in charge of the police force serving Camden, N.J., which has long had the reputation of being the most dangerous and poorest city in the United States. Former President Barack Obama chose Camden in 2015 to announce a bold initiative to address ongoing problems with policing in minority and poor communities.
But recent data shows Camden has been improving. Crime rates dropped 48 percent from 2012 to 2019, according to a recent Uniform Crime Report. And community-policing relations improved greatly after the city essentially disbanded its police department in 2013 and reconstituted it as a county agency. Under the leadership of Wysocki, who took over as chief last year after serving as second in command since 2016, the agency has had a strong focus on de-escalation tactics and the use of force as a last resort.
“Going back to 2014 before we started the de-escalation, we had 65 excessive-force complaints,” Wysocki said. “In 2018, we had three. In 2019 we had three.”
Wysocki joined protesters on Saturday marching against police brutality. He was initially unsure of how his presence and that of other officers would be received, but Wysocki says he was pleasantly surprised that he was welcomed to join the march.
“We’re just trying to be part of the community,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s the clergy, it’s the stakeholders, and all the residents came together and elected leaders, and everybody felt their pain.”
Wysocki’s views have been echoed by other law enforcement officials, including the top uniformed officer in the New York Police Department, Chief of Department Terence Monahan, who took a knee and hugged demonstrators in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park on Monday night.
Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton says he understands the frustration of protesters because he’s lived the black experience his entire life.
“As an African-American that’s spent now over half a century on this planet, it just brings back all the trauma and fear and anxiety that we face day-to-day because there’s no guarantee that you won’t run into the wrong person on the wrong day,” Clayton said. “It may end your life.”
Clayton added that it’s not enough just to hire more black officers.
“You have to hire African-Americans that have the courage to stand up against what we know is wrong,” Clayton said. “I don’t want you on my team just because you look like me. I want you on my team because you look like me because we share philosophy and we had the courage to stand up.”
Officers are also getting more comfortable breaking the blue wall of silence because they understand that their own safety depends on forging a spirit of cooperation with the community, says Delores Jones-Brown, professor of law, police science and criminal justice administration at John Jay College.
“Police are seeing if they don’t hold their colleagues accountable, they realize the streets become unsafe for them,” Jones-Brown said. “Police have an obligation to act in honorable ways, and it’s gotten to the point that the blue wall of silence is no longer a noble term.”
Jones-Brown spent 10 years teaching NYPD officers how to work effectively with multicultural populations and says the Floyd video has dispelled the idea, among both police and their civilian supporters, that wearing a badge excuses any kind of misbehavior.
“I think the big thing for [police] to learn is they need to drop the idea that police can do no wrong,” she said. “When you allow openly aggressive police officers to act in ways that are criminal, [the George Floyd incident] plays out.”
The Washtenaw County community is dealing with its own allegation of police brutality. An officer was seen on video striking a woman repeatedly in the head while conducting an arrest on Memorial Day. The initial video, filmed by a bystander, went viral online, prompting protests across the county. Clayton says that in this instance, it’s most important to gather all the facts and clearly communicate to the public on where the investigation is.
On Friday afternoon, Clayton held a press conference in which he showed approximately 45 minutes of bodycam footage, which revealed Sha’Teina Grady El bit the officer during the altercation. Clayton would not comment on whether the officer used excessive force, but he did say communication is a top priority.
“Our intent here is to provide as much information to the community as possible as they make decisions and contemplate what’s going on,” said Clayton.
Ultimately, even though he believes his officers will do the right thing on most occasions, Clayton admits they are human.
“I am traumatized too,” he said. “I got three sons from 32 to 20, and every time I see these images, it scares the heck out of me and my wife. I have 450 people I’m responsible for in the sheriff’s office that I believe are noble human beings trying to do the right thing. They may screw some stuff up at times, and I care for all of them. So I spend my day navigating that. … So I think the lesson for agencies are, you have to step up and step out.”
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