Police unions generally warn against quick judgments in cases of law enforcement violence, but in California, several representing rank-and-file police Thursday condemned the death of George Floyd and the actions of a Minnesota officer who knelt on his neck as he pleaded for air.
Floyd died at the scene and the officer, Derek Chauvin, was arrested Friday, prosecutors said. The death has sparked violence and rioting in Minneapolis, where the National Guard has been called in, and protests in other cities, including Los Angeles.
“What we saw on that video was inconsistent and contrary to everything we have been taught, not just as an academy recruit or a police officer, but as human beings. Reverence for life in every incident a police officer encounters must be the floor and not the ceiling,” the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents nearly 10,000 L.A. sworn personnel, said in a statement late Thursday.
Police unions in San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland, as well as the statewide law enforcement lobbying group, the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, put out similar statements, calling Chauvin’s actions outside of police training and castigating three other officers at the scene for failing to intervene. All four officers involved in the death have been fired.
The condemnations come as police chiefs, politicians and others across the United States weigh in with similar censure. But the statements from the police unions are notable because the organizations, charged with defending their members in cases of misconduct, are usually circumspect when it comes to commenting on in-custody deaths.
This week’s statements may reflect a shift in attitude for California law enforcement unions that have faced years of scrutiny as communities of color have accused police of unequal treatment, sometimes resulting in shootings that have regularly made national headlines.
“It’s a recognition that not speaking out on incidents such as this was and is a mistake,” Tom Saggau, spokesman for police unions in San Jose and San Francisco, said Friday.
For years, rank-and-file organizations have largely taken the position that a rush to judgment in fatal police encounters is unfair and that video evidence can be incomplete or misleading.
Last year, unions and activists squared off at the state Capitol over legislation to update California’s use-of-force law, fueled by video of the death of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man shot by Sacramento police who mistook his cellphone for a gun.
Police in that incident were cleared of wrongdoing, but the resulting protests and anger from activists and legislators helped push law enforcement, a powerful lobbying force in the state, to compromise on a new standard for when officers can use deadly force, changing it from when it is “reasonable” to when it is “necessary.”
Melina Abdullah, a leader of Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles and a professor of Pan-African studies at Cal State, said she believed the statements were “disingenuous,” and questioned why the unions were commenting on an out-of-state incident.
She pointed out that Los Angeles has seen controversial deaths and police actions in recent months in which the officers union has defended officers, including a scandal involving LAPD Metro officers who may have been unfairly entering black men into a state gang tracking database.
“It’s absolutely PR,” she said of the union statements.
John Burris, an Oakland-based civil rights attorney who has represented dozens of families affected by police violence, said he thought the acknowledgement by everyday officers was positive.
“There is the code of silence, the brotherhood of blue, that is ritually entrenched in police history and tradition, so this is unusual,” said Burris. “This is a good message for the county at large … to appreciate that police officers will in fact acknowledge misconduct when they see it.”
Saggau said that he and some “seasoned veterans” of law enforcement had watched video of the Minneapolis incident filmed by a bystander, and they had expected some action on the part of Floyd or Chauvin that could provide context for the death.
Instead, he said, they were struck by “the look on that officer’s face, the complete indifference,” he said.
The union leadership was also troubled that three other officers at the scene did not stop Chauvin, he said.
Saggau recalled thinking that, “Certainly somebody is going to tap someone on the shoulder, someone is going to jump in,” but “they did nothing.”
Saggau said that despite the unprecedented nature of the statements, union leadership was in consensus about the desire to comment on Floyd’s death.
“There can’t be reconciliation, their can’t be healing unless each side recognizes the wrong, and it’s been far too long that law enforcement has not recognized the wrong,” he said.