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State your case: Should police officers participate in protests?

A number of LEOs have made headlines by joining activists during the George Floyd protests


This month’s “State your case” looks at whether police chiefs and officers should participate in protests.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

The issue: As protests about the in-custody death of George Floyd spread around the country, both police chiefs and officers have marched with protestors and “taken a knee.”

When we asked Police1 Facebook fans their opinion of these actions, there were mixed feelings.

“I think it reminds the nonviolent protesters of the humanity they share with our officers and helps the officers empathize with them,” was a common response, while other folks were concerned about the implications of the act: “I feel like kneeling is an admission of guilt for crimes that you have not committed. I’m having a really hard time with all of the accusations of racism because my parents brought me up to be colorblind.”

Some folks were concerned about the tactical considerations of close contact with protestors, while others felt the actions crossed the line of neutrality the police are expected to display.

Watch the video below and then check out our columnist’s viewpoints.

Joel Shults: Leadership literally means being up front. Being up front on the issue of the custody death of George Floyd means that chiefs and sheriffs must assure America that Derek Chauvin’s conduct was outside the law and outside of acceptable police practice. News conferences and Twitter declarations will not be enough.

The long-term effect of Floyd’s death, as we’re already seeing from politicians, will be a rash of legislation calling for reforms that have already taken place or may place a figurative knee on the neck of law enforcement.

Cops have never been better trained, better screened and held more accountable for their behavior. Now is the time to use all means to convince the public that the narrative that “this happens every day in America” is untrue. From a public relations perspective, there’s nothing like agreeing with an adversary on agreeable points. Like Judo, it deflects the energy of the aggressor.

We can agree that George Floyd should not have died. We can agree that officers will be held accountable. We can agree that the community must have confidence in their police. What’s wrong with walking, literally, in solidarity with a community at every opportunity? Let that picture of the chief walking beside those expressing their concerns be on the front page.

Jim Dudley: No, just no.

I do not like the idea of using the George Floyd case as an example, but in near real-time, we are seeing how this symbolic gesture is a hit or miss proposition.

Just as a jingoistic phrase will not have anyone rally around the American flag, the totality of the circumstances surrounding this event will take much more sincere effort to repair the damage.

In short, this is a symbolic gesture. It can be a gesture of and by politicians, of which police chiefs and sheriffs may arguably be. It is not the answer to this case or the issues of racism in America or the issues surrounding police use-of-force.

For those who expect the “usual” response from the police, it may catch them off-guard and the show of acquiescence may calm a crowd. For those who are intent on destruction and rage to prove their point, the gesture will be lost. Amid the protests and some violence and destruction, the symbolic kneeling by law enforcement has been met with mixed results. The act has unified some for a short time, only to devolve in the planned mayhem and destruction such as in Aurora, Illinois, while in Camden, New Jersey, and Orange County, Florida, the unified act may have worked.

Still, it is a slippery slope if officers are demanded to join in the act. In some agencies, it may cause derision and divisiveness.

Joel Shults: Jim, I can certainly concede that kneeling is too divisive, but mingling and marching with citizens needn’t be.

A police leader can use intel and judgment in deciding how, where and how long to deploy, just as they would with any commitment to an engagement or mission.

I also concede that the impact of a symbolic unity with protesters can be met with derision and contempt from officers on the line who may be holding back violence by a thread just blocks away. Careful messaging to the troops and law enforcement supporters must be part of the package in this decision.

If the leader isn’t present with officers on the front line or protecting those protester’s safety and First Amendment rights, that leader has risked healing one divide and creating another. Slippery slope indeed, but a slope with at least two sides. Failing to meaningfully engage with the citizenry, which may include being present with them in these difficult times, can be part of a slippery spiral to irreparable division in the long run.

Jim Dudley: In general, when leaders decide to take a political stance (or as some would call it a humanitarian stance) there is a risk of alienating another perspective. The reason I am reluctant to use this particular incident as an example is that it is too raw, too emotional, too polarizing.

Of course on the face of events and the video of George Floyd’s death, it looks awful, and it is. But we do not fire or charge homicides without all the facts in evidence. Some say that is what needs changing. In any event, political stances should not be foisted upon personnel. First Amendment rights should be a choice, not a mandate. Although courts have ruled that an agency can decide which First Amendment rights may be exercised while on-duty and in uniform, I have yet to see where it can be mandated.

If this seems silly, take a look at elected officials who have sworn an oath, only to later reject swearing allegiance to the flag at official meetings. Even high-ranking police leaders have chosen not to honor the flag at an official event. Is this conduct worthy of reprimand or censure?

Let’s examine early warning systems for heavy-handed personnel, let’s look at science and training and use-of-force standards, but let us not be led to mandatory symbolic displays for political gain or favor.

Joel Shults: We’ve seen spirited debates about officers’ rights and restrictions on speaking out on social media representing their agencies by default or intent. Police leaders should have the latitude to engage the public in various ways. Both of us agree there are risks in choosing those methods.

NEXT: Is it time to lighten up on forbidding officers from speaking out?

About the authors

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and co-hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor’s in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on several advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.