They spoke with nonchalant certainty. Their accounting of the facts was laced with condemnation. Chauvin clambered over the retaining wall and went rampaging through a community — pinning George Floyd to the ground with force and traumatizing a crowd of bystanders by refusing to heed their pleas for him to show mercy.
Inspector Katie Blackwell calmly sipped from a travel mug as she characterized Chauvin’s restraint of Floyd as outside the training and stated policy of the department to which he once belonged. Lt. Richard Zimmerman leaned forward in his chair, a perpetually raised eyebrow giving him an expression of stubborn skepticism, and summed up Chauvin’s use of force while Floyd was handcuffed, prone and unmoving as “totally unnecessary.”
And then, when Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo was asked to identify Chauvin in the courtroom and describe his attire, he did so with a dismissive tone tinged with the no-accent neutrality of the Midwest.
“Mr. Chauvin’s right there,” Arradondo said. “He appears to be wearing a navy blue suit with a light blue tie and white shirt.” Appears to be. Arradondo would not even give Chauvin the benefit of a humanizing gaze. Appears to be. Such cold specificity.
This testimony marked a new, calming rhythm to a trial that began as a rough sea of emotion. Now was an opportunity to gather oneself and start making sense of all the preceding panic, fear and guilt.
For a week, civilians offered tearful testimony in the Chauvin trial. They described the horror they felt as they stood helpless as Floyd lay unresponsive with Chauvin’s knee pressed into his neck. They confessed their continued soul-searching over what they could have done differently and they admitted to profound guilt over being unable to control the circumstance leading up to Floyd’s death.
These people were as different as could be in age, race and occupation. Still, they formed a community of souls bearing the weight of a man’s death. Their burden was made no less fraught by Floyd’s flaws and travails.
These police officers sounded clinical, even if they were describing someone they’d known for decades. They distilled their answers into succinct monosyllables — as those practiced in the art of testifying before a jury tend to do. They didn’t embellish in the manner of Floyd’s brokenhearted former girlfriend, who spoke of their shared struggle with drugs and who was given to melancholy tangents about first kisses and date-night restaurants.
The austerity of the police officers’ answers to lawyers’ questions could be jarring. But their spareness was also a reflection of police protocol, implying that it is clear and immutable. It is factual. Feelings are like data to be entered into the algorithm to move the situation closer to a safe outcome. The department’s critical decision-making model — a graphic encouraging constant assessing and reassessing of situations — is the equivalent of guardrails that are aimed at protecting the humanity of the person being detained — as well as the one doing the detaining. Because after all, which is worse? To be treated like an animal? Or to act like one?
Of all the men and women in law enforcement who have testified so far — including those who have weighed in on police medical response training and use-of-force tactics — Arradondo is the one who speaks for the whole. He’s the chief of the department. He’s the ultimate boss and the one who is likely to explain the department’s style of policing as a kind of soft-focus public service announcement.
“It’s so important that we evolve as a police department and meet our communities where they are. And I’ll give a couple examples if you don’t mind,” Arradondo said to prosecutor Steve Schleicher.
Schleicher, it seemed, did not mind.
“We know that our communities suffer at times and go through trauma. So it’s very important for men and women to have training as it relates to how we respond.” And then Arradondo explained how the department collaborated with members of the transgender community to craft policies for improved relations. He mentioned the well-being of the officers themselves as essential to their being able to perform at their best.
“What does it mean to then serve with compassion?” Schleicher asked, as he homed in on part of the police department’s motto.
“To serve with compassion, to me, means to understand and authentically accept that we see our neighbor as ourselves,” Arradondo said. “We value one another. We see our community as necessary for our existence.”
This would not be the only time that Arradondo would mention community and his need for it. He would rely on a member of the community to alert him to the full nature of the crisis that unfolded on that Minneapolis street back in May 2020. A member of the community took the video that would reveal the breadth of Chauvin’s actions, for which he is now on trial. The community would then demand accountability and a reimagining of policing. It’s the community that will either support the police or not.
The blue wall of police solidarity has not fallen, letting a flood of muck flow. Systemic biases have not come tumbling down. Officers still hate it when citizens record them on duty. They still get angry and frustrated.
The officers spoke in unity and with a shared understanding of the challenges of their job — as well as the requirements of it. They made it plain that they believed Chauvin had failed to meet the demands.
But instead of that so-called wall being a barricade and a sign of division that must be hacked away, Arradondo’s testimony led the way in reframing it as part of the essential substructure that runs through a community.
The wall remains, but as a construct that has the invaluable capacity to steady a community on its worst day.