A Baltimore County police officer’s open letter to those protesting police misconduct is drawing wide attention on social media, and the officer says the nationwide response to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis signifies changes are needed in police departments.
Officer Seth Templeton’s Facebook post tells protesters most officers “strive for good” even though some officers abuse their power. “Some [officers], being merely human, make mistakes. Others, demonstrably sociopathic, commit ugly, abhorrent crimes for which they should be imprisoned,” Templeton wrote. The post has been shared more than 600 times.
“I think eliminating prejudice and racism in the police department is a goal that can be achieved through a number of practical steps,” Templeton said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.
Police don’t usually comment on high-profile incidents due to department policies or fear of retaliation from saying something “controversial” concerning involving other agencies or colleagues, Templeton said. His letter urges protesters to “not allow anger to spiral down into outright chaos and insanity,” but he also mentions “the pit in my chest” when watching “Floyd’s last moments, not only because of the horror and the inhumanity, but because of what it means for my profession.”
The 30-year-old Parkton native’s words mirror calls nationwide among officials who want the cops involved to be held accountable. Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt and Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison added their signatures to a letter from the Major Cities Chiefs Association urging law enforcement “to take action to address the disparate impact policing has had on African Americans, people of color, and the disenfranchised.”
Authorities in Minnesota last week said Floyd was detained because he matched the description of someone who paid with a counterfeit $20 bill at a store. A bystander’s video shows Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the 46-year-old’s neck for nearly nine minutes while handcuffed and detained.
For six nights, Baltimore’s streets have been filled with protesters in response to Floyd’s death, as well as countless other high-profile incidents of black people killed by police.
“[Floyd’s death] was pretty egregious and outrageous, and police across the country have all condemned the actions of Chauvin and the other officers,” Templeton said.
Police can prevent further incidents like Floyd’s death by raising the hiring standards, training, and education for police, Templeton said. There may be no “effective screening process” during the application phase that identifies discriminatory or aggressive behavior, but he said there are studies suggesting officers with college degrees are less likely to use force.
Templeton acknowledged police departments and local governments are “constrained by budgets” that only allow for a “comparatively brief period of training, despite the vast body of knowledge required to be an effective officer.” Comparing it to the post-graduate education of doctors and lawyers, Templeton said police training should take several years.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat whose youngest brother serves in the police department, has tried to address what he’s called the “strained relationship" between police and the community. The county is facing a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit alleging the police have engaged in hiring discrimination against African Americans who applied to become officers. In a court filing, the county, where 30% of the population is black and fewer than 15% of officers are black, denied those allegations.
And traffic stop data shows nearly 57% of all vehicle stops in 2018 involved black drivers. County police have also been involved in a number of high-profile deaths.
Olszewski hired the county’s first chief diversity officer, and he formed a workgroup to address traffic stop disparities and other inequities in county policing. The department has also set a 30-day goal for releasing body-worn camera footage from “critical incidents."
Templeton, a five-year veteran of the force, said many officers can become “callous” after being on the force for so long, but he’s grateful he never shot someone in the “millisecond” it takes to do so, nor has he been accused of misconduct. He tries to maintain his “idealism” after sustaining a permanent back injury from work, and he often discusses his career with his father, who is black.
Calling his department “progressive," Templeton said the county is experiencing a “generational shift in policing" as they try to increase diversity. Unlike many of his colleagues, Templeton said he’s endured racial slurs during his upbringing, but the biracial officer also has “the benefit of appearing to be white,” he said.
Templeton said he encourages colleagues “to be careful about how you characterize these protesters" when engaging with them. He’s also asking police departments to create systems that will make officers feel comfortable when the need to report misconduct arises.