We hope the swift and decisive actions taken by Hennepin County authorities and Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo — and the good work performed by police officers in Minneapolis and across our nation — do not get lost in the backlash. But tragedies such as this one occur far too frequently in our country, especially in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. There is still much work that our profession must do to prevent more deaths like Floyd’s and the destructive outrage that follows.
Moving our profession forward begins with a sustained commitment to accountability. From the start of academy training, recruits must understand that they have an absolute duty to put public safety first. There must be zero tolerance for dishonesty, as well as consequences for officers who fail to follow their training. In the Houston Police Department, which I am privileged to lead, we instill in our men and women the certainty that policy violations regarding truthfulness will lead to termination — or, as we put it, “If you lie, you die.”
Clearly, criminal conduct on the part of police officers must be investigated and prosecuted. But investigations into use-of-force incidents should be wide-ranging. In Houston, we look not only at the legality and justification for the use of force, but also consider whether there were opportunities to de-escalate. We want to send an important message to our personnel: Protecting the sanctity of life — of civilians, suspects and officers — is always our top priority.
When cops’ bad actions do not reach the level of criminal offenses, it is no less important for police leadership to remove from the ranks any officers who violate their oaths to serve and protect. Other officers, too, must stand against corruption and abuse in their midst. Here, I am encouraged: While there have been eras in America’s history when police have found it difficult to speak up, for many years, officers have consistently been holding one another to account. Complaints about police misconduct overwhelmingly originate from within agencies, not from members of the community.
Police labor leaders, who have enormous influence over the rank and file, can do more to help stop bad policing. When incidents such as the one in Minneapolis occur, their voices would be welcome additions to those speaking out against the few unfit cops who sully the reputations of all who serve. In this particular case, we have finally heard from police labor leaders — including the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Association of Police Organizations — who have condemned Floyd’s death. This is an encouraging development.
State legislatures, too, have a role to play. In Minneapolis, the police officers involved in Floyd’s death were summarily fired. In many jurisdictions, collective bargaining agreements prevent such swift terminations. In these states, lawmakers should ensure that police chiefs can act as quickly as Arradondo did in removing bad cops. State legislatures must also explore solutions to the problem of so-called gypsy cops — officers who are fired with just cause only to turn around and join another police department. And legislative leaders can help address the challenge facing jurisdictions where police departments are forced to take back fired officers even after they have been convicted of committing criminal offenses.
Communities have a responsibility, as well. We ask citizens to report police misconduct without fail, so that departments can then track, investigate and publicly report those complaints. Officers who are inclined toward abuse or corruption must know that their department and their colleagues — and their communities and the criminal justice system — will hold them accountable if they act on those inclinations.
There is another way in which communities can be a resource for police chiefs. Developing a culture of servant leadership must begin with recruiting officers from the neighborhoods we serve. America’s cities offer a plethora of talented, culturally diverse potential recruits. Police chiefs should seek them out, welcome them, train them, lead them and celebrate the perspectives they bring — building their departments from the very communities where developing trust is crucial.
This work cannot begin too soon. Right now, law enforcement officers are being tested — as a police station burns in Minneapolis, and as gunfire erupts in Louisville and Denver. Police across the country will need to rely on their training — and the values of courage and compassion it has hopefully instilled — as our nation struggles with Floyd’s death and searches for justice.
I and my fellow police chiefs extend our collective condolences to Floyd’s family and friends and to all who grieve his death. We condemn the actions of the police officers involved. But we remain hopeful that, in the aftermath of this terrible incident, we will focus on the key steps we can all take to give our communities the professional peace officers they deserve.