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Police chiefs react with disgust to Minneapolis death, try to reassure their own cities

Where once police executives may have stayed silent, this time, they denounced the officers’ actions

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo speaks during a news conference last year. He and other top police officials denounced the actions of Minneapolis officers in the death of George Floyd and commended their prompt firing. (Jon Shapley/AP)

Police chiefs across the United States, many of whom have been pushing their officers to de-escalate tense situations and decrease their use of force, responded with disgust Wednesday to the death of George Floyd after an encounter with Minneapolis officers and moved to reassure their communities that they would not tolerate such brutality.

In years past, police officials probably would have called for full, time-consuming investigations and patience from angry citizens until all the facts were in. Not this time.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo fired four officers within 24 hours, and the heads of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Major Cities Chiefs Association promptly issued statements of support for that move and denounced the prolonged suffocation of Floyd captured on cellphone video and soon streamed around the world.

Thousands of people gathered on May 27 for a second night of protests in Minneapolis over the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody. (Video: Nick Clausen/The Washington Post)

“The death of Mr. Floyd is deeply disturbing and should be of concern to all Americans,” said the Major Cities Chiefs, headed by Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. “The officers’ actions are inconsistent with the training and protocols of our profession and MCCA commends Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo for his swift and decisive action to terminate the employment of the officers involved.”

Minneapolis mayor says officer should face charges over death of George Floyd

Steven R. Casstevens, head of the IACP and chief of the Buffalo Grove, Ill., department, expressed his sympathy to Floyd’s family.

“Law enforcement officers are trained to treat all individuals, whether they are a complainant, suspect, or defendant, with dignity and respect,” Casstevens said in a statement. “This is the bedrock principle behind the concepts of procedural justice and police legitimacy.”

Casstevens added, “No single incident should define an agency or the profession. As police leaders, we must be willing to question and denounce actions that are wrong so as to continue to build trust within our communities.”

Protesters clash with police in Minneapolis after death of George Floyd

June 1, 2020 | Protesters are boxed in by authorities on Swann street between 14th and 15th streets in Washington DC. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)

In Miami, Police Chief Jorge Colina issued a video statement on Twitter saying he was “deeply disturbed by what we saw on that video. I stand with Chief Arradondo of the Minneapolis Police Department with the swift action he took once he was made aware of that video.”

Floyd apparently was arrested after he was suspected of attempting to pass a counterfeit bill in a Minneapolis business Monday evening, police said. He was then held down on the street, handcuffed and unarmed, with one officer’s knee on his neck. Floyd complained that he couldn’t breathe, as a bystander streamed the video live on Facebook. Floyd appears to become unconscious during the video. The Minneapolis Police Department identified the four officers involved as Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng.

For police officials who have been moving to improve relations with their communities by reducing their use of force, it was a sobering setback.

“There’ll be a tendency for people to look at that horrible video and say, ‘Nothing has changed,’ ” said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, which trains police departments nationwide in de-escalation techniques. “And that is so wrong. So much has changed in policing.”

Police departments largely have better training now, Wexler said, and the forum’s often-promoted theory that officers respect the “sanctity of life” was cited by Arradondo in his first news conference.

De-escalation training to reduce police shootings facing mixed reviews at launch

“These officers were held immediately accountable,” Wexler said. “Years ago, there would have been a long investigation. The first thing the police have to do is take responsibility. They did that. Watching this video makes every decent working cop sick, and it makes their job harder because the public will say nothing has changed.”

“You’re never going to achieve perfection,” Acevedo said in an interview. “This is why we have to be vigilant. Actions have to have consequences. I really commend Chief Arradondo for acting quickly.”

Demonstrators rallied across Minneapolis on May 26 and May 27 to protest the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody. (Video: The Washington Post)

Acevedo noted that state laws and collective bargaining agreements in many cities and states prohibit chiefs from terminating officers without extended processes, and that he could not have immediately fired officers in a similar situation in Houston.

“If you look at policing from 20 to 30 years ago,” Acevedo said, “although we still have these egregious incidents, when you look at the total number of [police] contacts [with the public], they’re small in number. Still, one is one too many. And it’s not just one.”

Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus tweeted that the video showed an “indefensible use of force that good officers everywhere are appalled by. … Conduct like this anywhere makes it more difficult for police everywhere to build community trust.”

In an email, Magnus said that “being as transparent as possible with the community, including involving them in the training police receive, especially scenario-based training, is key to building community trust. Officers in our department practice de-escalation techniques with community volunteers.”

He said that “when residents see how we train, what we expect, and that we hold our officers to this level of performance, they have more confidence in our agency overall.”

Though groups such as the Police Executive Research Forum and civil rights organizations have pushed for de-escalation training, at least one measure of the use of force has not changed in recent years: fatal police shootings.

Since The Washington Post began counting fatal shootings by police nationwide five years ago, 2019 had the highest number of such killings: 1,004. The totals in the previous years were 992 in 2018, 986 in 2017, 962 in 2016 and 994 in 2015. There have been 400 killings at the hands of police in the United States this year, and Floyd’s death will not be included in The Post’s database because it counts only shootings.

Fatal Force: Police shootings database

Law enforcement officials were unhappy that the FBI, which maintains the national Uniform Crime Reporting database, did not keep its own accurate count of police killings, and in 2018, the bureau announced its own National Use-of-Force Data Collection project. Police departments were to submit their data on a variety of force incidents, “which will provide the public with necessary facts about law enforcement use of force in the course of their duties and ultimately strengthen the nation’s confidence in law enforcement.”

But at the Major Cities Chiefs conference last May, Amy Blasher, head of the FBI’s crime statistics management unit, said only about 20 percent of the nation’s departments were submitting data. The FBI has not responded to inquiries about the project, and no report has been issued for 2019.

Jim Burch, president of the National Police Foundation, said in an email that “the video we’ve all now seen is distressing and hard for anyone to watch. … These actions, and inaction, jeopardize the gains that have been made through the sacrifices and courage of many. While the full investigation may reveal additional details and facts that are unknown to most of us today, we should all come together in agreement that the glimpse we have into this encounter is not consistent with the oath that officers take or the courage and integrity that the vast majority display each and every day.”

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told The Post, “The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge -- it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country. Law enforcement strives each day to build trust and this event is a sobering reminder of how quickly that can be lost.”