Roundtable: Perspectives on policing one year after the death of George Floyd
Police1 columnists reflect on their analysis of 2020's civil unrest and calls for police reform and share their thoughts on where policing is now
By Police1 Staff
A year ago today, the in-custody death of George Floyd led to protests and widespread civil unrest in cities across our nation with an almost instantaneous cry to "defund" and even "dismantle" the police.
Already overworked from COVID-related personnel shortages, LEOs faced mandatory overtime for days on end responding to hostile crowds. Officer stress was at the highest ever seen, with morale at its lowest.
Police1 columnists sought to provide rapid analysis of events and the long-term implications for law enforcement, as well as tactics for staying safe during crowd control and emotional support for officers and their families. We have invited our contributors to reflect on what they wrote and discuss where policing is one year later.
Law enforcement can (and should) take the lead
It’s been a year since George Floyd was killed and a year ago, I wrote about three things I thought we as a profession should do moving forward regarding law enforcement addressing and leading on the issue of race: Admit there is a problem, find out how we got to where we are today, and take the lead on the issue.
Over the past year, unfortunately, I don’t think we have made much progress. In many cases, I think we have gone backward. In the past year, I have watched as our profession has become more and more isolated from the public especially in underserved communities.
We will not get back into alignment with our neighbors by staying inside the four walls of the police department and only coming out when called. I understand how easy it can be to go into a bunker mentality, but we must resist doing so because it is only going to exacerbate our current perception problem.
I said a year ago if any group of people in this country was capable of overcoming the issues surrounding race it would be police officers. I still believe that, and I have seen a few examples of where this has been the case but unfortunately this is the exception and not the norm. Our profession needs those in leadership to step up and lead. Our neighbors want us to do our jobs. The last year has proven what happens when we go into firefighter mode, as some cities are seeing double the amounts of homicides and traffic fatalities from the previous year. I always say we don’t prevent crime, we deter it and in the year since Floyd’s death, we have not been deterring too much crime.
Lastly, I will leave you with my 10-80-10 rule: 10% of people are protectors, 10% are predators and 80% just show up to see which 10% is ahead. We are the protectors of neighborhoods and despite everything that has transpired since Floyd’s death I believe we can get back into alignment with our communities. We just need to stop letting the 10% who are predators win.
— Booker T. Hodges, who currently serves as assistant commissioner of law enforcement for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, previously wrote about how law enforcement can either lead or be led on the issue of race in America.
Telling our story: Never more difficult, never more critical
Social media communications, much like everything else, hasn’t gotten any easier for law enforcement. Most departments around the country are suffering from low morale, difficulty in recruiting, and many are facing budget and personnel cuts as well. Some are operating on eggshells, with the knowledge that one wrong step could ignite (or reignite) a national movement.
It is not despite these challenges, but because of them, that law enforcement agencies must continue their efforts to communicate consistently and effectively on social media.
From Portland to Kenosha, it has now become even more clear that social media-driven public sentiment has real effects on the profession. It drives activists and elected officials, and jump-starts trends from “defunding” to mass retirement of officers and difficulties in recruitment.
No matter how just the cause or how professional your agency is, most people will measure you by how they feel, and social media is touching more heartstrings than anything else. If we don’t take this arena seriously, we will continue to see the downgrading of the entire profession in the eyes of the public. Thankfully, we have a lot to work with. Cops around the country are doing incredible work every day, and more and more leaders are committing to transparency and strengthening community ties. Now they just need to tell that story.
The same best practices still apply when it comes to messaging. We should strive to share good moments and tell the public what we do, with the understanding that if we don’t tell the story of law enforcement, others will. An effective social media strategy needs to be more than a mere presence or the sharing of a cute K9 photo. We can’t afford to only be on it, we need to be good at it as well. This means committing to transparency, creating a crisis communications plan, training PIOs and relevant personnel, and engaging with audiences instead of just speaking at them from afar. It may sound like a lot of work, but it is an investment that is sure to pay off, especially if a crisis, which could be anything from a bad shooting to a bad tweet, comes to your door.
It has never been more difficult for law enforcement agencies to reach out and tell their story. It has also never been more critical.
— Yael Bar-tur, a social media consultant who served as the director of social media and digital strategy for the New York City Police Department, previously wrote about what police should and should not be doing on social media.
Line-level leadership never more critical
One year later, the pressure from activist groups has diminished for many agencies – but this is temporary. Every department is one controversial use of force incident away from activists, protesters and rioters causing significant issues.
One interesting development in the past year is the timidity of supervisors when reviewing their officer's use of force incidents. Specifically, supervisors seem quick to classify a reasonable use of force by their officers as an unreasonable use of force. This can cause them to send messages up the chain of command that there is a problem when there is not. Sergeants need to be cautious of this and ensure they support their officers who are using reasonable force. Officers should also keep in mind that you do not have to surrender your right to self-defense under any circumstances, despite what our detractors might say. Our detractors are trying to widdle away at well-established use of force laws, and we must constantly guard against this.
Training must continue to be a priority for agencies, and that responsibility cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of a training unit. First-line supervisors have to take responsibility for this and ensure they are de-briefing field incidents to glean lessons learned.
Those lessons should be shared with the training unit to use for future reality-based training scenarios. First-line supervisors can focus on decision-making skills by using decision-making exercises in a briefing setting. Every officer's use of force begins with a decision, and when those decisions are poor, problems occur.
Leadership at the line level has never been more critical. Field supervisors can provide solid leadership by ensuring that they maintain a balcony view of incidents they respond to. One trend, especially for new supervisors, is to become directly involved in incidents, which does not afford them the chance to maintain overall scene control. Some supervisors also take over calls from their newer officers, which robs them of growing and learning from their mistakes. Step in only when necessary or when there is a need to prevent the loss of life or significant bodily injury.
— Lieutenant Travis Norton, a 20-year veteran with the Oceanside (California) Police Department, previously wrote on tips for leading during the anti-police crisis of 2020.
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"Defunding" the police has led to "devaluing" the police
The in-custody death of George Floyd and the subsequent prosecution of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin initiated a ripple effect of emotionally charged calls to defund the police around the country.
Some politicians and COVID-19 pandemic cash-strapped local governments were quick to acquiesce to these demands and have followed through with reduced police budgets of as much as several million dollars. Other jurisdictions have either allowed their department’s budgets to remain the same or to increase due to rising numbers of officer vacancies, as well as increases in all categories of crime over the past year. The rising trend in both numbers followed a tense summer of protests and sometimes violent clashes between protesters and law enforcement. Surveys taken in many urban areas have shown that residents in fact do not approve of plans to reduce police in their neighborhoods.
A companion piece to the defund the police movement has been the call for city and county leaders to embrace reimagined public safety. Most of the reimagined changes involve the expansion of current government offices, as well as the creation of new ones in order to provide unarmed employees who will be responsible for conducting social assistance services and public safety duties that have for decades been traditionally performed by certified law enforcement officers.
So far, integrated squads consisting of a mix of police and social workers/substance abuse workers/mental health professionals have had positive success and many are considered models for others to follow. As for unarmed traffic enforcement, well, most are quietly waiting to see exactly how that will play out. Whether the badge reads police, deputy, or trooper, traffic stops are unpredictable, inherently dangerous and not to be approached as “simple” or “routine.” Performing traffic enforcement is also a form of government seizure, bringing numerous 4th and 5th amendment implications. The subsequent investigation following a traffic enforcement stop often yields evidence of a wide array of offenses from wanted persons, violent felons, stolen property and narcotics trafficking. That’s a lot to ask of an unarmed public servant.
Defund the police also carries a much broader social and political message. Many in our society have become emboldened by this new philosophy and act empowered to do or say as they wish toward police. “Defund” the police has literally produced an attitude of “devalue” the police: “Let’s defund them since they have no value and no worth. They are all the same. ACAB. We don’t trust them. They are all products of a corrupt system.” As long as police officers feel they are not supported by their political leaders or their communities, we will continue to see an increase in apathy, an increase in crime and an increase in police officers who are leaving the profession.
— Mike Walker, a 29-year veteran of local and federal law enforcement, previously wrote about the difference between police defunding and police disbanding.
How T.R.U.S.T. can bring change
Last year, I found myself shouting at my television screen for the officers to get off of George Floyd. I was so troubled by what I had witnessed, I was overwhelmed with an urge to speak out.
I tuned in to watch the publicized funeral services of George Floyd and my urge to speak out only intensified. I wanted to be at the funeral and speak directly to Floyd’s family and friends. I wanted them to know how sorry I was that this happened. I also wrote down what I wanted to say to all of law enforcement: “We can never make changes and unite unless we become vulnerable and listen to those willing to speak. We must be present in this moment and come together as we shape our future.”
I watched the trial of Derek Chauvin each day and saw new evidence that only deepened my troubles. A dispatcher and bystanders emotionally shared their memories of what they had witnessed that day. Even though the death of George Floyd divided so many communities, that day, people from all walks of life stopped and united because they all knew what they were witnessing was wrong.
I was hopeful things would be better nationally by this time. Unfortunately, politics have taken over the pursuit for reform and the lack of political unity has only contributed to division in communities across the nation. I have seen both encouraging and adverse proposals to police reform, but nothing that dives down to the core of real change. I have watched as police officers around the country have been violently assaulted and murdered in targeted attacks.
I have watched celebrities and professional athletes weigh in on police conduct and responses when police use deadly force. I often look at things through a positive lens. The fact that everyone is highly engaged and vocal only reaffirms the words I wrote down one year ago. Real change and real unity start with listening.
Real reform will occur when law enforcement becomes vulnerable and effects change to the culture of law enforcement. This is not a time for police to hide because they fear they cannot do their job due to a lack of public support.
A key takeaway from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing was police legitimacy. The police still need to prevent and resolve violence and harm in their communities. We must still strive for public safety and at the same time police from the heart. That is simply being a human being. Be compassionate. Be respectful. Help those in need beyond traditional policing.
I hope by next year we can be closer to positive change and adopt true reform that establishes trust. A simple and effective way to establish trust is to use it as an acronym and strive for excellence in each category: Transparency, Receptiveness, Unity, Service and Training (TRUST).
— Seaside (California) Police Department Deputy Chief Nick Borges previously wrote about why community solidarity matters.
Why we must look in the mirror
In my article last year, I shared the horror I felt after seeing the murder of George Floyd, along with the need for sensible police reform.
I have spent time reflecting on George Floyd’s murder and the need for police reform in the year since writing the article. I’ve also spoken to some African-American friends in law enforcement. I was taken aback by the personal pain they expressed in seeing these events, along with society’s reactions. It is easy for law enforcement leaders to say we are doing all we can to embrace police reform or think that serious problems will not affect our own departments.
My grandfather used to recite a poem called “The Guy in the Glass.” Part of it reads, “And the world makes you king for a day. Just go to a mirror and look at yourself, and see what that guy has to say.” Law enforcement leaders are given significant power and responsibility. From time to time, we need to stop and look at ourselves in the mirror, particularly given the power and responsibility we hold. Are we being honest with ourselves about whether we are doing enough to foster and build equality in our departments and the community?
These are good places to start:
- Wellness programs: The disturbing incidents we have seen on the news often involve officers who are clearly not well. Police leaders have an absolute duty to ensure the mental and physical well-being of the officers under their command. A wellness program is a great place to start. Wellness programs should include critical incident debriefings, mental health checks, free and confidential counseling and nutrition programs. I would suggest asking your local community mental health agency for assistance.
- Communication with community leaders: Build and maintain good relationships with community leaders. Reach out to them frequently, not just when there are problems. These relationships are invaluable when problems arise such as controversial traffic stops or use of force incidents.
- Transparency: This is a tough one for some of us. There are very few times we can’t or shouldn’t share information with the public. When we make mistakes, we must admit to those mistakes, apologize and explain how we are going to fix them. The medical field has learned that admitting mistakes and apologizing reduces lawsuits and increases public trust.
- Recruiting and retention: It is all too easy to say that we can’t get a diverse group of people to apply to the department. Consider alternative recruiting methods such as church gatherings and community events. Remember that diversity exists on many levels, not just hiring. Does your leadership team reflect the community you serve? A diverse leadership team can and will be noticed by your community and assist with recruiting.
Law enforcement is one of the most honorable professions known to man. I am deeply proud to be a member of this profession. To maintain and build on the honor of our profession, we sometimes need to look at “The Guy in the Glass.” This is one of those times.
— Ryan Strong, chief of police at the Wayne Police Department in Wayne, Michigan, previously wrote on cutting through the rhetoric to achieve reasonable police reform.
Remember your oath
Now that a year has passed I have been asked to comment about where we go from here. I must say that since I am retired and have suffered through and survived the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortunes that were law enforcement in my era, I must say that from that perspective this current generation is facing great challenges unique in this post-George Floyd era.
Most people in this country support law enforcement and do not want to dismantle and defund it. They do believe we could do better. So how does one officer live up to that challenge?
If I had one thing to say to those officers who plan to stay and face these challenges, look to the words in the oath you took and breathe life into those words one contact at a time and you will represent our profession honorably.
— Lt. Dan Marcou, an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement, previously wrote his five sense worth on police reform
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- Dr. Frank Straub on the LAPD response to George Floyd protests
- LE coalition opposes Illinois ‘anti-police' bill and here’s why
- New data gives hope for informed reform
- Violence reduction project: Addressing 2020's unprecedented rise in violent crime
- Officer well-being in 2020: Addressing mental health challenges in law enforcement
- Too far in to quit, not far enough to retire
- 'We're all in this together': How an officer's message of unity went viral during the darkest days of civil unrest