The video footage of George Floyd’s death and hearing the words “I can’t breathe” brought back a lot of memories, none good. Watching an officer’s knee planted into the side of Floyd's neck, made me wince in disbelief.
I was glad to see the Fraternal Order of Police (F.O.P.) response following Floyd’s death, but I was appalled to see yet the other side of it when a corrections officer in New Jersey was filmed mocking protesters during a Black Lives Matter march.
Then, as protests spread from Minneapolis to all parts of the country and especially Lafayette Park in Washington D.C. It seemed like a routine exercise for crowd disbursement and the National Guard was simply following orders. But then the U.S. Park Police moved in wielding clubs and using tear gas, as National Guard Major Adam Demarco told a Congressional committee, just in time for Donald Trump to walk to St. John's Episcopal Church for his little Bible toting photo op.
As I watched, I felt another bad memory coming on as I saw agitators interrupt peaceful assembly. There were reports of this type of instigator in Minneapolis, such as an individual now called "the umbrella man who was seen damaging property during the Black Lives Matter protests. He reportedly has links to white supremacy groups, and police say he helped turn the largely peaceful protests violent.
Martin Gugino, the 75 year-old protester in Buffalo NY who was knocked to the sidewalk by police and injured, was the perfect example of unnessary aggressiveness, and if you check the photo by clicking on the link, notice the look on some of the officers faces. I guarantee some wanted to help him, but one cop is looking away so he can say he didn’t see anything, while others seem conflicted and confused.
‘I Can’t Breathe’ I was a prison guard for 25 years and I have heard the words “I can’t breathe” dozens of times. I patrolled corridors, cell blocks and common areas, not the streets. It was surely different from an inner city beat, but it held similar characteristics.
Handguns and assault rifles were replaced with metal shanks, razors and cups of HIV infected urine, saliva, or feces. We were armed with vests, masks, pepper spray, batons, and protective gear. There was never a death involved and I can proudly say that I never reached the point of someone not breathing, but I witnessed it.
Inmates had grievances all the time, there were options available to peacefully air their concerns but on occasion tempers would flair, anger would erupt and soon the agitators would rile enough individuals to sow chaos in an otherwise civil proceeding. Yes, there are over aggressive officers; yes, they have a chip on their shoulder from something bothering them in their lives. Testosterone was on full display in the locker room before shifts as posing in the mirror and flexing of the muscles was common. Discussing manhood and who was the toughest was a daily event to somehow prove superiority, I guess.
The goal, however, was written in our policies, our oath of office and the procedures of protecting life and property.
When we responded to a call for an event already in progress, we had no time to judge ethnicity. We didn’t see black or white, we saw khaki or orange. There are no suburbs or urban areas, every inmate wore the same clothes.
Excessive force did happen in prison, but behind the blue line is where the conflicts start.
After an incident occurs and an inmate makes accusations and the video is played back, Internal Affairs gets involved and administrations scramble to save face, leaving the officers to fend for themselves.
Whose Side are You On?
I was a union representative with the Fraternal Order of Police for many years before retiring. It was our objective to maintain pay and benefits, but more importantly provide legal representation.
I saw officers fired, arrested, and jailed, but I also helped officers wrongly accused. When an officer was being investigated for use of excessive force or any violation of procedure, if you did nothing wrong other than being there, you did not want to get caught in that web.
You also did not want to be called a rat, even if telling the truth saved you from losing pay or even your job, but would cost that officer pay, suspension or reprimands on their record. We had careers and families depending upon us, and we had to go to work the next day knowing that those officer(s) might have to take our back next time around. And there was always the old saying “Whose side are you on?”
There were fist fights and arguments that occurred in the locker room, parking lot or favorite watering hole, because one or two officers' actions could have cost you.
I remember seeing many officers in solidarity with protesters as reported by Forbes; I also remember the New York police lieutenant apologizing for his actions. That is what it is like during and after an incident behind the blue line.
I had faith in the justice system, but prior to Floyd’s video I read a speech by Attorney General William P. Barr at the July 2019 F.O.P. convention regarding policing and the justice system.
Udi Ofer of Davis/Vanguard.org wrote that as Barr dismissed police violence and espoused Trump's get tough policies, he seemed stuck in the 90's. And, his actions ever since make you wonder if his and Trump's rhetoric may have emboldened some police officers.
I am no longer a active dues paying member of the F.O.P. mainly because of Barr's comments and the organization's support of Trump even before Floyd's murder. However, I support law enforcement because there are officers lining up every day with the intent of being professional and doing their job right.
I also know there are active officers walking a beat everyday who share my opinion but cannot be in conflict with their union.
I also know many active and retired officers who applaud the attitude of the president and our justice department. I also support the peaceful protester for exercising their rights to assemble, the athlete who kneels. and hopefully there are signs that it is all making a difference. Even F.O.P. president Patrick Does acknowledged to NPR in June that police reform is needed.
Where will this lead? That is uncertain, but we can hope common sense and sanity prevails and improvements are made. The future of our nation depends on that.