As the United States responds to the death of George Floyd, a black Minnesota man who was killed by asphyxiation by a police officer, many law enforcement officials are speaking out to make sure they are heard as well.
Falmouth police shared on Facebook the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association message denouncing the actions taken by the four members of the Minneapolis Police Department, one of whom faces a murder charge while the others are charged with aiding and abetting.
“Our Massachusetts Police Officers have thoroughly embraced the six pillars of the principles embodied in the final report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and remain committed to professional conduct, democratic policing and procedural justice for all people,” the message says.
Police Chief Edward A. Dunne said he has received many calls and emails asking about the department’s policies toward use of force and racial sensitivity.
“It’s inexcusable what happened,” he said. “We are all appalled—the whole department, the chiefs across the state—at what happened that day, both the action and the inaction. There were officers that should have intervened, but stood by. It’s appalling.”
How and when to use restraint or force in a situation, and the ability to assess the threat level, is part of the department’s use of force training. Law enforcement agencies across the county are taking a hard look at their guidelines to see if changes should be made in light of the recent killing.
“The more you train the officers, it becomes muscle memory as to what they are supposed to do. And we do it right,” Chief Dunne said.
He was adamant that the placement of a knee on a person’s neck as a restraint during an arrest goes against his department’s policy.
“Our policy is largely framed on Supreme Court case law that defines what officers can and cannot do and predicated on actions on individuals dealing with,” Falmouth Police Captain Brian Reid said. “That constitutional scope is constantly being applied and constantly being refined.”
“Our policy is to ensure we are not applying any more force than necessary in any given situation. When to apply force, when to escalate it, when to deescalate, using the appropriate amount of force is an integral part of the training,” he said.
Each incident in which force was used is reported to Capt. Reid, who said the reporting is done to make sure people’s rights are being protected.
James Rogers is the lead officer on use of force training, which is mandatory and occurs bi-annually through the Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee.
“We go over the baton, less-lethal options, use of tasers, handcuffing, and test the officers on the policy itself,” he said.
While the use of force is situational and fluid, a knee into the neck for almost nine minutes is never acceptable, Officer Rogers said. “I don’t know if the officer in Minnesota was trained. Either he wasn’t trained or went way out of the scope of his training.”
In the late 1980s the department began learning about positional asphyxia—when subjects are put into a compromising position that restricts their breathing.
“It’s the worst position you can put a person in,” he said. “Nowhere have I seen sticking a knee into someone’s neck for eight minutes is acceptable use of force. I don’t think anyone has ever trained that. It’s not what we do.”
Captain Reid said officers are told they cannot put a person face down in a cruiser, only for the time it takes to put the handcuffs on, but then they are to immediately put the handcuffed person upright.
“Even if he [George Floyd] was violently resisting, once the handcuffs are secured are on, the fight is over. You then need to make sure he’s okay and render aid. That’s how we train our officers,” the captain said.
Officers also undergo race and bias sensitivity training yearly.
“The training is beyond race, but for biases against communities such as the LGBTQ, so law enforcement is sensitive to the needs of all members of the community,” Captain Reid said.
Two officers are part of Falmouth’s No Place for Hate Committee and the chief attended the vigil against police brutality on the Falmouth Village Green on Sunday afternoon, May 31.
Recently, a patrol officer shared a post on her Facebook page that was construed by at least one Falmouth resident to be insensitive, that it downplayed the severity of the issue of unarmed black people being killed by police.
Captain Reid said the department supports free speech but needs to temper it, knowing an officer’s opinion could be interpreted as that of the entire department.
“I told her if a post shakes the public’s confidence in us, then it’s a problem,” he said.
The officer removed the post, telling the captain she did not mean offense and apologizing.
Chief Dunne is hoping the trust he and his staff have built in the community by working with local clergy and other community leaders, as well as giving residents a firsthand account of a “day in the life” of an office through its citizen academy program, will outweigh the negative feelings many have toward law enforcement since the death of Mr. Floyd.
“Is it tough for our officers right now? Yes. Everyone is looking at the badge as a bad thing right now, with everything going on right now. But you can’t paint us all with the same broad brush. Many have one thing in mind—to serve the community,” Chief Dunne said.