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Zirpoli: Breaking the blue wall of silence critical for our nation to move forward | COMMENTARY

On April 22, Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees posted a Facebook message after the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd: “I’ve been clear since this incident broke in May 2020; what this person (Chauvin) did was criminal and inhumane, he should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.” DeWees added, “This should not be a conviction of all police officers! We were all sickened by what we saw and continue to work hard to overcome the memory etched in all of our minds.”

Most of us would agree with Sheriff DeWees and are grateful for his leadership on this issue. And, of course, none of us, regardless of our profession, want to be judged by the poor behavior of the bad apples in our field.

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Within any profession, the most useful evaluation tool is the feedback received from peers. The key, however, is that our peers must feel safe about speaking up. There must be an open and risk-free mechanism to do so. Silence about inappropriate behavior within any professional community diminishes that profession in the eyes of the public.

For the entire 9 minutes and 29 seconds that Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, three other police officers stood by and watched. They will go on trial in August for contributing to Floyd’s murder. Somewhere along the line, these and other police officers have come to believe that their job is to protect their fellow officers, not the members of the communities they serve.

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If not for the video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck taken by a brave 17-year old, Chauvin and his fellow officers would still be on the street today. The police report they submitted after Floyd’s death did not mention Chauvin’s behavior. They submitted a false police report explaining how Floyd died. One has to wonder how many other false reports these officers submitted during their careers and how many other murders may have been committed but not exposed.

It is rare for a police officer to be charged with murder, never mind convicted. Bowling Green University collects data on this and found that while about 1,000 people are killed by the police each year, less than 1% since 2005 have resulted in a murder conviction. Black Americans are twice as likely to be killed by the police as white people.

A significant development in Chauvin’s trial is that other police officers from his own department denounced his behavior. As outlined by Timothy Egan of The New York Times, “It’s no small thing that several Minneapolis police officers, including Chief Medaria Arradondo, took the stand against Mr. Chauvin.” In addition, writes Egan, “Fourteen officers in the same department signed an open letter” stating that their colleague “failed as a human and stripped George Floyd of his dignity and life.” But, as Egan states, “these are small dents in a wall that is institutional and pervasive. Cops protecting bad cops is ingrained in the system.”

At the Georgetown Law’s Program on Innovative Law Enforcement they are working with about 100 law enforcement departments around the country to teach police officers “to step in when another officer uses excessive force or acts against department guidelines.” As the co-director of this program stated, this was missing in the Chauvin & Floyd encounter.

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Perhaps the police officers who spoke up about Chauvin’s inappropriate behavior have set a new example. “That does not happen every day,” says Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. “The fact that these police serve as witnesses against their fellow officer allows for other police officers to say, ‘I can do the right thing.’”

In my own field of working with individuals with disabilities, the quality of care our clients receive from their caregivers is fundamental to our professionalism. Inappropriate behavior by just one bad actor can be devastating to our agency and our field. It is the responsibility of all of us to monitor the behavior of other employees toward our clients who depend on us for their care and education. Silence is not golden. We all have to be advocates for those placed in our care, even if it means standing up to another employee’s inappropriate behavior.

This is easier said than done, of course. However, it is a message that we must constantly reinforce. I imagine it may be even more difficult within a police community where dependence on each other could be a matter of life and death, but it is even more important for people authorized to carry deadly weapons. The statements from Minneapolis Chief Arradondo and Carroll County Sheriff DeWess, however, give us hope.

Tom Zirpoli is the program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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