Last night, I came across an Opinion piece in The Washington Post, written by a police officer that really impressed me. Halfway through reading the article, I was saying, “Oh yeah … this guy really gets it!” The officer is Patrick Skinner, working on the police force in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia. Officer Skinner is a former CIA operations officer and served in the United States Coast Guard as well as the U.S. Capitol Police, so he has a broad base of experience in law enforcement. The man knows of what he speaks …
I’m a cop. The Chauvin verdict is a message for me, and for my colleagues.
Police officers can’t be defensive. We owe it to those we serve to change policing — and slow down.
I was at work as a police officer when the judge announced the jurors’ verdict Tuesday in a Minneapolis courtroom. I am a violent-crimes detective in my hometown of Savannah, Ga., but like the rest of America, I was worried about the verdict. I was worried that once again, a jury would, despite clear video evidence of guilt, find that it was somehow reasonable for a minor criminal matter to end in the death of an unarmed suspect at the hands of a police officer.
But I was also worried that we would view the outcome as the conclusion of a trial and not the beginning of change. Because as powerful as the murder conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin is, what we do next — as a country in general and as police in particular — will go a long way in determining whether systemic positive police reform is possible. It is in this time immediately after the verdict that several things, which are entirely within my control as a police officer, have to happen.
The first thing is actually something that needs to not happen: Police must not be defensive. We must not circle the wagons. “Not all cops” is exactly the wrong reaction. Even though that is true — of course not all cops are bad — it is irrelevant. Systemic reform is inseparable from individual change. We need both, and they have to feed off each other. There will be a natural desire by police, myself included, to say that the system worked, that Chauvin was found guilty by a jury of his peers and that a bad apple was sent to jail, no longer around to rot the bunch. Again, this is true, but it is also irrelevant. A nation so tense about a single trial, so uncertain about what was going to happen, is a nation in desperate need of much more. And we all have to take a first step. For me, the first step is that I need to take this verdict personally if I am to change professionally: That means I need to empathize more with my neighbors, and if they’re outraged or sad or just weary from police interactions — theirs and others’ — I need to work from that space. It means these outrages aren’t just outrageous to my profession, they’re outrageous to me personally. It means to step out of comfortable anonymity and demand that we change it all.
Here’s the second thing that needs to happen: We police need to fight the destructive reaction we have resorted to before in places like New York, where members of the police union had an unofficial but announced slowdown in 2019 after the dismissal of an officer implicated in the killing of Eric Garner by police in 2014. We have to stop saying, in effect, that if we can’t do our job the way we have always done it, well then, we won’t do our job at all. We might still collect a paycheck, but we will stop a lot of work because of an exaggerated fear of running afoul of the “new rules.” Rules such as “Don’t treat your neighbors like robots of compliance,” “Don’t escalate trivial matters into life-or-death confrontations” and “Treat your neighbors as if they were your neighbors.” That anyone would consider these rules “new” is a problem in itself. Few police officers reading them aloud would take issue with such anodyne statements, but put accountability behind the statements and now they’re an attack, not just on all police but the very foundation of American policing. The truth is that we do not get to tell our neighbors — those whose communities we police — how we will do our job. They tell us.
Faced with criticism that perhaps police should not be turning a traffic stop over an unarmed person’s vehicle registration sticker into something to be resolved at gunpoint, some will say, “What are the police supposed to do, let all criminals just run away?” There is a lot wrong with that reaction. To begin with, let’s slow down on calling someone with registration issues a criminal. And then let’s slow down everything, because we police are rushing to make bad decisions when time is almost always our friend. Tamir Rice most likely would not have been killed for having a toy gun if the Cleveland police officers had not rushed right up to him and shot him. There was no violence going on; the 12-year-old was alone in the middle of a park. Slow down, I tell myself in almost every police encounter. The risk to my neighbors in my rushing to a final judgment in very uncertain and fluid situations far outweighs the risk to myself. I’m often wrong in the initial assessment of chaotic scenes, and so I try to be wrong silently, allowing my judgment to catch up to my reactions, to allow my perception to catch up with my vision. Slow down.
I don’t know the third thing that needs to happen to lay the foundation for sweeping positive change in American policing because I’m so focused on the first two. I’m worried. I’m even scared. Not of big changes but that they might not happen. There is nothing easy or comfortable about any of this. To change policing in America requires confronting issues of race, poverty, inequality, injustice — the very issues too many in America say aren’t even issues anymore, as if history and its terrible weight started today.
I believe I was wrong for some time about not taking this personally. I’ve often told myself to not take well-deserved criticism of police misconduct and crime personally, because while as a police officer I am responsible, I was not personally responsible. I even wrote about this very thing here last year after the murder of George Floyd. I meant that I must not get defensive and to accept responsibility even if I wasn’t to blame. But now I don’t think that’s enough, at least for me. I think I have to take it personally: I have to be offended, I have to be outraged, and I have to act. That means I need to understand the goal of every 911 call, and that the compliance of those I encounter is not a goal; it might be a path to a goal but it’s not the goal. It means putting my neighbors first at every instance. It means often to act slower, to give my neighbors the benefit of the doubt because they are the point of my job.
None of this is abstract, none of this is a metaphor. All of this is senseless death in needlessly life-or-death situations. And all of this is personal.
I was at work when the verdict came in; I’ll be at work tomorrow, taking this verdict personally because my neighbors demand it. And they have always deserved it.
As I said, Officer Skinner is one cop who truly gets it, who understands what his job is, understands who he really works for … We the People, and sincerely wants police officers across the nation to learn from the tragedy of the George Floyd murder. I give two thumbs up 👍 👍 to Officer Skinner! The rest of the police need to take their cues from him.