Dispatches from a Pandemic
“ There are no simple solutions . I know this as both a police chief and as a trained historian .”
ON MONDAY , May 25 , 2020 , I watched the horrific footage of George Floyd pleading for his life under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer . Mr . Floyd , an African-American , was clearly not resisting and not even in a position to resist , since he was handcuffed and lying face down in a prone position . The officer , who had an arrogant smirk on his face , callously ignored Mr . Floyd ’ s repeated cries for help as he savagely pinned him to the ground for eight minutes and fortysix seconds .
As someone who has devoted his entire adult life to the law enforcement profession , I wish I could say this was just an isolated incident and that an injustice of this magnitude was not reflective of a larger , systemic problem . While thankfully there are still many more good police officers than bad , sadly , what we witnessed in Minneapolis has become all too familiar : the unjustified killing or violent injury of an African-American person at the hands of the police , often in response to the commission of minor , non-violent crimes .
The public protests that follow these heinous acts inspire calls for reform and promises by law enforcement leaders and politicians for more training and better accountability . Over time , however , the reforms prove ineffective and do little to change abusive behaviors . The 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson , Missouri , for example , led to widespread use of body cameras by the police that were supposed to increase transparency and change the behavior of rogue officers . The Minneapolis police officers who killed George Floyd were all wearing body cameras and knew several bystanders were filming them , yet did nothing to alter the cruel behavior we all witnessed . Some of this is because police chiefs fail to enact tough policies on when officers must activate their cameras . They unquestioningly support their officers even when it is apparent that their behavior is problematic . In other cases , powerful police unions restrict what a law enforcement executive can do to hold officers accountable and have too much influence in disciplinary proceedings .
I experienced the public outrage and promises of reform in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial , which was held in Simi Valley , where I have worked as a police officer for the last 32 years and currently serve as Chief of Police . After the acquittal of the four LAPD officers accused of violently beating Mr . King , riots broke out across Los Angeles and in many other communities in the United States . When the dust finally settled , the City of Los Angeles formed the Christopher Commission , which outlined sweeping reforms for the LAPD that had a wider impact on law enforcement throughout the United States . These reforms were a positive step in changing the culture of policing in America ; however , like its federal predecessor the Kerner Commission during Lyndon Johnson ’ s Presidency , the Christopher Commission did not go far enough . Now , here we are again in 2020 engaging in the same discourse about injustice and reform that , unless our political and law enforcement leaders have the courage to take seriously , will end up back in the dustbin with the countless efforts that have gone before .
This time , however , I am hopeful there is a greater chance to improve the culture of policing in America . The campaign to defund the police has angered the law enforcement community , but grabbed the attention of law enforcement executives and politicians across the country . The role of social media has helped Black Lives Matter become a truly global movement , and some journalists are now calling this America ’ s “ Arab Spring ” moment . People outraged by the death of George Floyd are demanding more than empty promises on police reform — instead , they are looking for a profound reckoning with the problematic legacies of slavery and tearing down icons of the Confederacy erected during Reconstruction to intimidate emancipated Black people . I believe we are witnessing the beginning of a cultural revolution .
Many police departments , mine included , have now banned neck restraints and are requiring our officers to do more to de-escalate situations from becoming violent . Congress is debating federally mandated police reforms , and the officers involved in George Floyd ’ s death are now facing prosecution , as are others who have used questionable uses of force . These are steps in the right direction , but we also need to promote more education for our officers , and not just in criminal justice programs . Requiring police officers to have a degree in the liberal arts and humanities makes more sense . I cannot think of another career where the inability to think critically or display empathy for another human being can have such life-anddeath consequences . A high school diploma and six months in the police academy is not enough for what we ask of the women and men in our departments . Policing in America must change ; if not , our “ Arab Spring ” moment will fade in the same way it did for so many advocates of democracy across the Middle East .
We must also avoid the lure of utopian solutions such as those that suggest replacing police officers with unarmed social workers . Policing is part of a
TRITON | FALL 2020