As he prepares for work each morning, Tighe O’Meara, the police chief in Ashland, Oregon, tunes in to coverage of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer charged in the killing of George Floyd last year.
O’Meara doesn’t watch to decide whether he thinks Chauvin is guilty; he sees Chauvin’s culpability as “an open-and-shut case.”
He watches for signs of hope for his profession.
He found some in Chauvin’s former colleagues and bosses who broke the so-called blue wall of silence to testify against him. “We need as much of that as possible,” O’Meara said in an interview this week. “We need transparency and integrity above all else.”
But O’Meara, who is white, also sees the trial as a test of whether police can regain the trust of many Americans, most of all the Black and the Latino residents who disproportionately live in high-crime, highly policed neighborhoods.
“If he’s convicted, it will be a strong declaration that we as a society hold police officers to account for their actions,” he said. “If he’s acquitted, it will be an event that takes us in the exact opposite direction.”
When Michael Persley, the police chief in Albany, Georgia, watches the trial, he sees the profession he loves at a crossroads. As a 28-year law enforcement veteran, he says, the trial is a reminder how damaging Floyd’s killing was for policing — and a lesson for his officers to follow use-of-force policies. At the same time, he is a Black man who understands why Floyd’s killing damaged public trust in police.
“It’s hurtful to the law enforcement profession and then it’s a disappointment in my viewpoint from the Black community,” Persley said. “It’s a disappointment to us that that was not a trust-building day.”
Across the country, police officers and commanders, active and retired, are watching Chauvin’s trial with a mix of interest and angst. Their responses, in interviews conducted this week, share some common themes, notably that the trial illustrates how one incident can shift the public conversation about policing.
But the responses also vary. While some officers see the trial as an encouraging example of the criminal justice system holding a rogue officer accountable, others see it as a sign that a growing portion of the country, led by the media, politicians, prosecutors and top commanders, has turned against them.
No one interviewed justified Chauvin’s act of pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. (Chauvin’s defense team has said that Floyd’s underlying health conditions and drug use — not Chauvin’s restraint methods — caused Floyd’s death.) But some officers complained that the trial has not sufficiently examined Chauvin’s frame of mind, or the fear that officers feel while trying to arrest someone who does not want to be taken into custody. Some see Chauvin as doomed for conviction, and said their profession felt doomed as well.
“It’s disheartening to hear the prosecution throw cops under the bus and leave the defense to build them up, which is the opposite of what normally happens,” said a white detective with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of losing his job. “It sucks.”
A sergeant in the New York City Police Department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for the same reason, said he and other officers saw Chauvin’s trial as a reason to think twice before using force against someone who is resisting arrest.
“It has an effect on police officers, no doubt about it, and for some officers it can even affect the way they approach certain situations,” the sergeant, who is white, said. “They may be more hesitant to use force. I’d hate…
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