Wilhoit was still thinking about that encounter, and those social media posts, when he found himself standing on a D.C. street in front of about 60 protesters who pleaded, “Kneel for us.” He knew then, he says, that he had to press a knee to the pavement.
“For me, kneeling was the right thing to do,” the 29-year-old says. “At the end of the day, I’m black first. If I were to lose my job today or tomorrow, or if I were to choose a different career path, one thing that would still remain when I take this uniform off is I’m a black man.”
Wilhoit says two other officers near him also knelt. He says he didn’t know at the time whether they would be commended or suspended for doing so, but it didn’t matter to him.
“In that moment, it wasn’t about kneeling to appease anybody,” he says. “I was kneeling because I wanted to show my people I’m with them in solidarity. … It would have ate me up if those protesters were like, ‘Kneel with us, kneel with us,’ and I said, ‘No.’ It would have ate me up.”
Some of the most hopeful photos and videos that have emerged from the recent protests that have shaken cities across the country have been of uniformed men and women kneeling before protesters. Those images have come in contrast to the ones that show law enforcement officers launching tear gas canisters and firing rubber bullets into crowds and, sometimes purposely, at journalists.
But context matters.
It matters whether those shows of solidarity are genuine or are just photo ops. It matters whether police departments have encouraged officers to kneel, forbidden them to do so or given them the freedom to decide for themselves what they believe is right.
It matters because George Floyd died not only because one officer decided to put his weight on his neck and remain there even as the dying man cried out for “Momma,” but also because three other officers at the scene did nothing to stop that from happening.
That thought, with all its sharp edges, keeps rolling through my mind: They did nothing. They did nothing. They did nothing.
The District’s Metropolitan Police Department is just one department in one city in the nation. But it is one that other departments sometimes look to learn from, and that alone warrants looking closely at what is happening within it.
The department requires officers to intervene and report any misconduct they witness being committed by other members of the force. But that is not always done, according to a report that the D.C. Office of Police Complaints issued in August. In the report, the office recommended that the police department ensure that all officers are aware that they have a duty to intervene in wrongdoing and that the department expand training to help them “handle the pressures that might otherwise prevent them from doing so.”
“I’ve spent a good part of my career becoming very familiar with investigations in which officers that were standing within arm reach inexplicably happened to be looking the other way or inexplicably didn’t hear what happened or the third one is they just can’t remember what happened,” says Michael Tobin, a former police officer and assistant city attorney who heads the D.C. Office of Police Complaints. “You can’t do that anymore. You can’t just be an observer. If you’re there and you don’t do something, you’re part of the problem.”
He and a handful of staffers from his office have spent the last several days weaving through protests in the District, observing how the public has been behaving and how D.C. officers have been responding.
He says he has seen instances in which police action could have been improved and moments in which officers have shown a “high level” of restraint.
At one point Sunday, he witnessed a group of about 60 demonstrators surround three officers who leaned against some garbage cans and talked to them.
“It was a very respectful back-and-forth conversation with a lot of people participating,” he says. “To me, it was a significant sign of things to come.”
Officers have traditionally been trained to not stray from the script, he says. But he believes the protests show the culture that supports that mind-set is changing. Officers, he says, would not have knelt before protesters just a few weeks ago.
“The fact that some officers were willing to do that means there is a trend, a hopeful trend,” he says. “To an outside observer those might seem little steps. From my perspective, those are huge, significant steps forward.”
One white D.C. officer who has been working at the protests says he has been surprised by how many people “have wanted to talk to us and are clearly looking for us to prove their worst fears about officers wrong.”
“Even in a very dark hour for our profession, some people clearly want to believe in us,” he says. He spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could comment openly about his experience without requesting permission from the department.
He says officers have talked among themselves about kneeling and other displays of solidarity, but it’s a complicated issue. They are at the protests to ensure safety and order and don’t want to distract from that mission. Many also have been struck with rocks and glass bottles. And there is just a reluctance to put yourself out there in front of your colleagues.
“It takes a certain bravery to be an activist, something we should acknowledge right now, and while many of my fellow officers are brave in the face of danger, it’s a different kind of bravery,” he says. “I will admit to lacking that courage at times, but in the right time and place, I can see one brave person prompting more kneeling.”
He describes the inaction of the other officers in the video of Floyd’s death as “one of the most disturbing aspects” of the episode. He also describes seeing more of a push toward peer intervention around him.
“It’s hard to imagine myself as Derek Chauvin,” he says of the officer who put his knee on Floyd’s neck and has been charged with murder. “I think we would all want to believe that about ourselves, but it’s a lot easier to see yourself as a bystander. Derek Chauvins can’t exist without bystanders.”
The photo of Wilhoit kneeling and shaking hands with a protester appeared on the Prolific Films Instagram page, alongside these words, “If you’re neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
When I get in touch with Wilhoit to talk about it, he agrees even without requesting permission from the department. He is not speaking on behalf of the force, he says. He is speaking as an officer who grew up in the city he is now paid to protect.
He is speaking as a black man who before he joined the department, or even considered applying to the academy, was a victim of police brutality.
At 22, he and his sister were driving a friend from Howard University to their grandfather’s house in Oxon Hill, Md., when they were pulled over near their grandfather’s driveway. Wilhoit says that the officer refused to tell him why they were stopped and that he later learned that the officer listed the reason as a burned-out tag light.
“I was forced out of the car, pepper-sprayed and punched in the face,” he says. “My sister was in the car crying.”
Later, when he got his driver’s license back, it was cut in half.
Wilhoit says a relative convinced him to apply to the police academy, and he did, because he wanted to work on reform from the inside. As we talk, he fights back tears twice. He describes the protests as a “humanitarian check.”
“If you don’t feel some kind of way, you need to question what’s going on with you,” he says. “People are angry and they are marching, but in reality, people are looking for reform. They are looking for change.”
They are looking for police officers who aren’t afraid to do what they believe is right — whether that is kneeling or stepping up to stop one of their own.
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