June 1, 2020 | Reading Time: < 1 minute

Are cops being sincere?

In the Monday edition of the Editorial Board, I noted the different ways police departments are handling public outrage, some of it violent, over the murder of George Floyd by a white cop in Minneapolis. Some are flying the Thin Blue Line flag, a symbol of American fascism, while others, including here in New Haven,…

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In the Monday edition of the Editorial Board, I noted the different ways police departments are handling public outrage, some of it violent, over the murder of George Floyd by a white cop in Minneapolis.

Some are flying the Thin Blue Line flag, a symbol of American fascism, while others, including here in New Haven, are taking the time to “renew their vows” to the cities they serve by reciting their oaths.

Pointing this out, I argued, is important, because the president wants to be seen as being on the side of law enforcement so that whatever future action he authorizes will be seen as legit and right. But law enforcement is itself divided, or appears to be. And that’s where today’s question comes from.

Some police officers may be paying lip service to democratic values when they take a knee. If so, does that mean their gestures are meaningless or does that mean citizens can hold them to a standard? Given the reaction to my piece, some are suggesting it’s all public relations and a moot point.

But I’m skeptical and want to know what you think. Thoughts? —John Stoehr

PS: my students will be participating in this thread. Be nice, please!

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

17 Comments

  1. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    It’s wise to be skeptical until proven right or wrong. I’m skeptical as well but I really don’t know. Given potus’ personality I doubt everything he says or tweets; and so far have found him not to be a truthful person. Those who are receptive to his “bully pulpit” may be as mendacious as tr$mp himself.

  2. David Gottlieb on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    In a lot of ways, this question about the sincerity of actions can go beyond just cops. People in general who all of a sudden are posting on social media about these issues and are advocating for them can also be questioned to an extent because its so easy to share something on social media because everyone else is doing it. Truthfully, the real test of how sincere people’s efforts and actions are will be once the media frenzy dies down and people go back to having regular everyday lives including cops and it will be interesting to see if they remember posting about the injustices of George Floyd and the standard they set for themselves as they go about their daily routines.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

      Thank you, David.

  3. Amy Glick on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    Generalizing about “law enforcement” can only go so far. They are pledged to maintain order, but the individual’s or department’s opinions or methods in doing so vary greatly. In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death I saw a lot of ACAB being posted, and (after I looked it up) I knew I didn’t agree. “All cops” are just – cops. Yes, the individual should have a conscience, but it is largely up to the leadership to guide them. Is it all PR and lip service? I hope not. Probably some.

  4. hw on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    In a moment of such great tension, any and every gesture of support to a grieving and despairing community is crucial. These gestures represent individual choices…it becomes harder to more cognitively dissonant to ‘take a knee’ one day and commit a racist action the next. I think it matters on an individual basis and to the community at large. We gain little by critiquing those who are making the right choices.

  5. Leona on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    Policing has become too militaristic. Get rid of the robot cop garb. The public wants to be protected not intimidated.

  6. EllTeacher on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    Good intentions on public display are like frosting on a cake: Beautiful to look at, but if the inside isn’t good then the icing makes the disappointment so much worse.

    One aspect of police responses to the apprehension of suspects that is missing from the coverage of recent events is a look at the training that departments put their recruits through. What I mean is the two-fold physiological response-to-threat that acceptable training is supposed to ingrain during recruitment, and later, as ongoing professional development and education.

    Most people are aware of the “fight or flight” response, which also includes “freeze or play dead.” These responses come from the primitive brain and are “programmed” responses that engage on autopilot when one feels as if one’s life is being threatened.

    The goal of two-part physiological training is first, to have the higher-order thinking portion of the brain to kick in and regain control of the physical response to danger. This is crucial for deciding what the appropriate”body memory” response is to deploy in the situation.

    As an example, if a man in a crowded bar were to pinch my bottom, I’d probably throw my drink on him or slap his face as an automatic response. I wouldn’t take out my switchblade and knife him in the kidneys. If my intuition informed me that the guy and his friends way outnumbered me and could potentially really harm me, I’d probably forego the drink-throwing and face-slapping and leave as fast and unobtrusively as possible. That’s context. Context assessment takes thought. It means having the brain in gear and being in control of the body’s reflexive actions.

    What is apparent to me from watching the video of George Floyd being killed by a white cop, is that the officer let loose his extreme, knee-jerk response and never once reconnected to a truly thinking process.

    Before anyone accuses me of sympathy for him, let me assure you that is not the case; however, I do believe if this nation is ever going to excise this rot of deathly violence towards people of color, and more specifically black men, by white police we must go back to the drawing board and minutely examine the hiring process and the initial training that members receive.

    In Minneapolis, for instance, I’d really love to see how the physical training for subduing suspects is taught. Just where did the cop who snuffed out the life of George Floyd learn that deadly maneuver? How did that become his go-to move? Why did the other officers spend their efforts at subduing the crowd and protecting the cop on top of Mr. Floyd? Why didn’t one of them pull off the cop when Mr. Floyd cried out, “I can’t breathe”?

    I see an end result of training, not just the physical and technical aspects, but of values, or should we say, the lack thereof?

    Watching that video I see a physical manifestation of internalized hatred.

    If there ever were an intellectual control mechanism that steered those Minneapolis cops into responding only with appropriate force, that mechanism has surely been destroyed.

    The difficult part now if for citizens of all stripes to demand a look at–and a say in–the philosophy that undergirds law enforcement and the way that stated values translate into training methods.

    So kudos to those officers now kneeling with protestors–it’s certainly a visible means of diffusing angry crowds. Perhaps they are the recipients of training methods and techniques that are appropriate for our times. Perhaps they are human beings expressing sentiments that are heartfelt and call to everyone’s better angels. Perhaps it’s both.

    Either way, to stop the torrent of police-inflicted death, we must go back to the roots of modern law enforcement, to the ideals of PROTECT and SERVE. Those ideals should inform decisions of hiring, training, promoting, and firing.

    We can never eliminate racial or religious hatred. Us versus Them, the Other–this dichotomy will hover in the background of some people’s minds forever, and it’s being stoked now in barbaric fashion.

    The anger that so many have demonstrated is righteous. It is powerful. But we need to ensure that this power is used to address the problems and not as a signal to descend into chaos.

    Chaos fixes nothing. Chaos nullifies power.

  7. Lily Crowell on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    Personally, I believe that posting/publicizing the “good acts” of cops shifts the conversation in a negative way. While it is wonderful that these select police forces have chosen to take this time to reaffirm their duties, help protesters instead of punish them, etc, these events should not trump the reports of ongoing and unprovoked police brutality in this country. This is not to say that I believe a wholistic version of these events should be concealed; but if posters are using these rare examples to prove that the issue of police brutality in our country is suddenly solved, then I feel it is very harmful to the BLM movement.

    There is also a great deal of evidence that police who are taking a knee and showing solidarity with protestors are just doing it for the optics and publicity. I personally have seen reports from protestors in NYC, North Carolina, Portland, and Orlando that have claimed that cops who took a knee with them were teargassing and engaging in violent activity directly after pictures were taken.

  8. Indigo Pellegrini de Paur on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    Lily Crowell suggested below that police are showing solidarity with protestors for optics, and commented that there have been reports of those same cops showing solidarity then violently suppressing protests after the photos. I think these acts of cops showing solidarity plays into a narrative that there are lots of good cops and just a few bad ones. This narrative is harmful because it is a cop-out (no pun intended… or maybe pun intended). It is a narrative that refuses to address the greater systemic problem of police brutality primarily against people of color. It is difficult to parse through all of the different opinions on social media these days, but a post that stuck out to me argued that cops who show solidarity are part of a “counter-insurgency” campaign aimed at reducing violence. To conclude, I don’t think all cops are bad people, but I think they are part of a system that does not hold them accountable. There were four police officers on the scene of George Floyd’s death. While Dereck Chauvin was arrested for second-degree murder against George Floyd, the three other officers have not been charged. This normalizes complicity. Until this compliancy is viewed as a crime and officers who stand by and watch are also held accountable, I will not trust or believe the cops who are kneeling with protestors for the photos.

  9. Mo'ath on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    Whether it’s lip-service or not does not really matter. What matters is that acts such as kneeling with protestors or reciting the oath to protect cities and citizens serve as a way to further legitimize the protests. These acts show supporters and critics that these protests are well founded and have reasons which are acknowledged by members of the system(Police) people are protesting. Acts of support by police give much needed legitimacy to protestors in an atmosphere where the President is trying to take away such legitimacy by painting the protests as anarchistic and ill-founded against Trump’s calls for law and order which has serious fascists and oppressive undertones.

  10. Meg Alberding on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    I think the kneeling, etc. of police officers has a different meaning as a result of our current administration’s dismissal and aggression towards the current protests, although it has been circulating that they are not doing it as a riot tactic. Kneeling with protestors, if it isn’t for a riot tactic, shows a clear denouncing of the president’s horrific reaction to what is currently happening. It would be a good start in this situation, but what is really going to matter is what occurs after this. How will those police officers translate their kneeling, if in solidarity, to actual, systemic changes throughout our whole nation, both related and not related to law enforcement? That is what will truly mark their position.

  11. Sebastian Kulkarni on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    I think the gesture of kneeling displayed by cops suggests that there other ways of expressing dislike towards racism in this country. By kneeling, this suggests that there is a clear disapproval and dislike towards the President’s handling of the situation. Officers want to feel protected, just as all ordinary citizens do, and by rioting and destruction nothing can be resolved nor will anything change.

  12. Angela Duong on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    It doesn’t make sense to me that some police officers are choosing to kneel, when they have the power and authority to contribute to more meaningful activism such as holding each other more accountable and refraining from using excessive brutal force on protestors. It seems to me then, that their kneeling is simply performative. They want to be recognized and commended for their solidarity in the media, but don’t genuinely believe in its significance. If they did, they would be leveraging their position to ensuring the safety of the civilians.

  13. Ben Dachman on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    Although I acknowledge the importance of symbolic gestures in easing America’s tensions, these menial steps are simply inadequate within the larger context of America’s most profound ailments. However generous police-offered concessions might seem, they fundamentally fail to address the root cause that has led to this disastrous state of affairs. Currently, the protests proliferating throughout the nation have a central rallying cry: eliminating police-brutality against African-Americans, and the systemic mistreatment accompanying it. Institutionalized discrimination against Black Americans dates back to colonial times, and is now so thoroughly engrained into the fabric of an increasingly authoritarian police culture such that I believe only drastic structural transformation will be effective in remedying the situation. In this frame of reference, symbolic action can only be perceived as a mere precursor to more meaningful change. Truth be told, virtually all police departments purport to make good faith efforts to be more inclusive and collaborative with the communities they serve, but these purely rhetorical promises have been made and neglected plenty of times before with little reform actually coming into fruition. Perhaps I’m a bit jaded and cynical at this point, but if police units seek to regain the trust of the constituencies they are entrusted to protect, then they need to commit to substantive legal reforms, with tangible goals in mind. For example, the policy platform advocated by Campaign Zero (including limiting the use of force, conflict-resolution/mediation training, independent prosecution, community oversight, greater transparency, among others) sets a reasonable standard. If police officers are genuine about expressing sympathy towards the African-American community, then they need to construct a space in which dialogue can and will occur in order to actually effect change. Otherwise, I—and most of my counterparts—will view all platitudes as pure window dressing, just smoke in mirrors that will vanish once the protests recede.

  14. Michael F on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    I think that it is essential to emphasize and reaffirm their commitment as police officers to strive “for the best interest of the city.” That being said, I also believe it is bullshit for Chief Reyes to claim that “today we speak for us, and we speak for [law enforcement officers around the country].” Reyes and his officers can only speak for themselves and hope to be an example for officers around the country. To assume the voice of police around the nation greatly minimizes the injustices committed by the same officers and departments he claims to speak for.

    I think that what the New Haven PD did was good but done in the wrong way. They cannot speak for all departments and attempting to do so is like putting newspaper over a fresh piss stain. They may distract us with good PR, but the stink remains while the rot continues to fester.

  15. Olivia Ramseur on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    While I do think that some of the cops who kneel may be well intentioned, especially considering in the images and videos of them kneeling there are also cops who didn’t join them, I think that it doesn’t really mean anything. Whether or not it’s sincere, it doesn’t offer any of the changes that the protesters are protesting for. Those officers should also be advocating for changes in the policing system to ban use of force and increase accountability. They also should be refusing to tear gas or shoot rubber bullets at peaceful protesters, which they are seen doing not long after they take a knee. It’s nice to make a statement, especially when so many don’t, but it’s really only the bare minimum and you have to practice what you preach. Just because a few officers take a knee during a protest does not mean that they do not continue to enforce a racist system.

  16. Brian O'Malley on July 30, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    Call me cynical but based on all we’ve seen with the Republican party’s lip service I’m not sure we have the luxury of accepting most gestures as anything other than bad faith until they’re verifiably not.

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