What does George Floyd's death tell law enforcement?

There are systemic problems in policing that we fail to address at our peril

This article was first published on the Calibre Press website

By Jim Glennon

I’ve been in law enforcement for almost 40 years now and have been training for just shy of 30. When I do my best to objectively explain use-of-force events captured on video – applying the science of human performance and the reality of stress to clarify the complexities of a violent encounter – I often take heat from those who always want to blame the police and place evil intent on their behavior.

A firefighter directs water on a burned building as one of the state troopers patrols the area Friday, May 29, 2020 after another night of protests over the death of George Floyd who died in police custody Monday in Minneapolis.
A firefighter directs water on a burned building as one of the state troopers patrols the area Friday, May 29, 2020 after another night of protests over the death of George Floyd who died in police custody Monday in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

On the other side of the coin, when I point out unprofessional behavior exhibited by law enforcement, I take similar criticism from fellow officers.

People see what they want to see. They often view reality through the lens of an agenda or a true belief that they hold in their hearts. Facts, according to a popular Harvard study, do little to change minds.

I also always advised people to wait for the complete set of facts before passing judgment on an event, an individual, or an entire profession.

Well, I’m breaking away from my own advice.

I can’t see any excuse for the tactics and behavior that are clearly shown in the video of the in-custody death of George Floyd. None! Not from any quarter of training, decency, or common sense.

So, what the hell happened, and why?

Many instantly pointed to systemic issues such as racism and violence within the profession. And why wouldn’t they when they see this? A white cop on top of a black man, seemingly callous to his pleas while clearly causing unnecessary and unjustified pain for nearly 10 minutes – all while another officer seems to care so little about the injustice being committed right behind him.

Still, kneejerk reactions to this horrific video such as strictly blaming racism for the actions of the officer are shots that are off the mark. And that’s unfortunate because these types of reactions distract from the systemic problems we certainly do have in law enforcement.

Yes, there is a sordid history in some – and I’ll repeat, some – agencies over the course of this country’s lifetime when it comes to race. 

That is beyond contestation.

What is also beyond contestation is that the vast majority of people who choose law enforcement as a profession do so to help their communities. They have a desire to be involved and willingly risk their lives for the benefit of others. 

Why do they want to do that? It’s hard to explain to those who don’t have the same desire. It’s impossible to explain to those who want to hate cops.

Suffice it to say, those who put on a uniform realize that they are agreeing to risk their lives for strangers. And they do it all the time.

All the time.

So, when we in law enforcement see something like this unjust use of force in Minneapolis, we are appalled and sickened as is everyone else. Case in point the dozens of text messages and emails I received from officers around the country expressing disgust at the act and dismay for what will inevitably be a schism between the police and some members of the community.

Cultural deficiencies: Training and leadership

In way too many bureaucratic law enforcement systems, the true problems lie in our lack of commitment to reality training and the ways we fail to lead our personnel.

The majority of agencies do little more than once-a-year, check-the-box-so-we-can-say-we-did-it types of control tactics training. Throw 15 knee strikes, do 20 straight-arm-bar takedowns, swing the baton, prove you know how to take out your TASER, sign the book, and the system says, “See you again in 365 days or so.”

Agencies do very little (if any) actual tactical training. A few do, sure, but most don’t. They simply can’t, and it’s usually due to severe manpower shortages and budget constraints. This is the true historical piece of systemic nonfeasance: the failure to adequately train law enforcement officers.

Think I’m exaggerating? Think again.

Calibre Press conducted a survey on that exact subject several years ago.

For whatever reason, virtually no department in the country trains its officers adequately enough to develop any sort of procedural (muscle) memory when it comes to controlling another human being. They get little to no true training about what happens to the brain and body when experiencing acute stress.

So, what then will an officer rely on during a force encounter out on the street? Too often, nothing more than reptilian instincts coupled with a dash of primitive anger and sometimes – as we all saw in this case – a serious lack of common sense.

Now add a deficiency of true leadership. Uninvolved supervisors who aren’t themselves educated to effectively coach, counsel, train and discipline line-level personnel. Unabated by true first-line counsel, poor habits and unprofessional behavior flourishes. Disreputable officers thrive.

First-line supervisors need to recognize immature emotions, as well as patterns of poor decisions and tactics, especially when it comes to uses of force. But to do that, they need to be involved with those in their charge. Out on the street and regularly engaged.

Finally, I want to point out one more disastrous systemic and cultural reality: The unwritten rule that says officers will not step in when they witness the improper behavior of other officers.

Police managers must create organizational cultures that emphatically teach, encourage, advocate, practice and demand the interruption and calming of unprofessional behavior! This must be part of every agency’s DNA.

There are no words

What happened in Minneapolis is exceptionally difficult to watch. It was also tactically unsound, seemingly unjustified and unquestionably avoidable. 

The officer who put his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. The three others have been fired already.

But is that it? Are the officers the only ones who should take the totality of responsibility for what happened and why?

The leaders of all police agencies, and the politicians to which they report, must make a commitment beyond punishing individual officers when events like these are on public display and incite painful reactions. They must take responsibility for, admit to and address the true ills that create the opportunity for such unprofessional behavior. 

Responsibility cannot solely fall on the shoulders of the individual men and women who dedicate and risk their lives. 

To clarify, I’m not in any way excusing the behavior of the officers in this particular case. Their actions are egregious and shocking. It’s an embarrassment for those in the profession, and it’s devastating to Mr. Floyd’s family and the entire community. 

I am simply pointing out that true change begins with knowing what to change.

Police bosses need to lead and supervise. Politicians need to make financial commitments if they want true improvement and real conversion. Make the adjustments that have been necessary for decades. Train your officers adequately.

And do it now, or we will continue to replay events like the one we saw in Minneapolis in perpetuity.

NEXT: What will investigators look for in the death of George Floyd?

About the author

Lt. Jim Glennon (ret.) is the owner and lead instructor for Calibre Press. He is a third-generation LEO, retired from the Lombard, Ill. PD after 29 years of service. Rising to the rank of lieutenant, he commanded both patrol and the Investigations Unit. In 1998, he was selected as the first Commander of Investigations for the newly formed DuPage County Major Crimes (Homicide) Task Force. He has a BA in Psychology, a Masters in Law Enforcement Justice Administration and is the author of the book "Arresting Communication: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement."

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