What was the most disturbing thing about what happened to George Floyd?
Was it the horror of watching a man beg for his life? Was it the casual disregard of these pleas by officer Derek Chauvin, whose knee pinned Floyd’s neck as onlookers desperately tried to intervene on his behalf? Was it the three other officers who saw what was happening and chose to violate their oath of office by failing to step in and protect Floyd?
As an African American retired police officer, I would say it is all these things and something more. Because these incidents of black men being killed by police are now so common in the United States, it’s no longer just about the tragedy of what happened to George Floyd. It’s about what is happening to all of us.
It would be a mistake to equate these deaths with lynching or with terrorism, but in some ways the effect is similar. The intention of lynching was only secondarily to punish the individual. Primarily, it was to send a message to all black people about our place in society — to instill a sense of fear in each survivor meant to keep them in line, to keep us weak and afraid.
I’m not saying it was necessarily the intention of these particular officers — or the many, many others involved in similar incidents across the country — to create this fear. Their intention will be judged by the courts, and, I believe, by God. But no matter what the officers intended, the effect is the same. I have a son, and I worry about him every day of his life.
It’s a terrible burden for communities of color, but it’s also a very real problem for police. If people of color don’t trust the police, then we can’t do our jobs. I see this playing out on a daily basis in my hometown, Baltimore, where trust is low and the homicide rate continues to climb. The lack of trust diminishes witness participation, which translates into unsolvable murders in which killers go unpunished and continue to kill. They do not fear apprehension.
Patterns of behavior matter. And how we respond to them matters.
Each death not only sends a message to people of color, it sends a message to police about what is or is not acceptable behavior. Thuggish officers continue to abuse their power because they know they will not be held accountable. Officers who witness excessive force by their peers decide not to come forward.
Accountability makes all of us safer.
I join police leaders across the country in praising Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo for his swift action in terminating the four officers. Such action is rarely seen. But my challenge to our nation’s police chiefs and sheriffs is to go much further than a statement of support.
I challenge you to advocate for the transparency of police personnel records related to police officer misconduct, excessive force and citizens’ complaints. I challenge you to advocate for a nationwide tracking system of police officers terminated due to corruption and excessive force, so that offending officers don’t just move to the next town. I challenge you to reform union contracts that prevent officers from being held to account. And I challenge our courageous street cops to step up, rededicate yourselves to your oath of office, and hold your fellow officers accountable for the benefit of all.
You are better than this.
Major Neill Franklin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired member of the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department and executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group of criminal justice professionals who want to change the system for the better.