‘I didn’t see race in George Floyd.’ Police union speaks for first time since killing.
Police Officers Federation leaders addressing the press about a month since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. From left: Sherral Schmidt, vice president of the Minneapolis Police Federation; Bob Kroll, president; Rich Walker, director; Anna Hedberg, director. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.
Minneapolis Police Officers Federation President Bob Kroll called the video of the police killing of George Floyd “horrific,” but he denied the police department needs fundamental change or that racism is common in its ranks.
“Our job is to respond to the crimes that we’re dispatched to and to stop and detain and arrest, if warranted, the person that committed the crime,” Kroll said in a Reformer interview. “We don’t pick and choose that by race.”
Kroll was joined by three other police officers and union leaders in a two-day media marathon with national and local outlets. They said the effort — carefully choreographed by a team of public relations consultants — is meant to set the record straight after weeks of relentless scrutiny.
The police union has been a central target of mayors, police chiefs and activists, who say the federation is the singular biggest impediment to police reform.
In a rare capitulation, the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation severed ties with Derek Chauvin, based on the video showing the former Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes even after he cried out for his mother and his body went limp. The union won’t try to have Chauvin reinstated, even if he wanted to and were acquitted of the charges of murder and manslaughter he currently faces.
This is a reversal of an earlier letter Kroll sent to members, in which he said he was working with Chauvin’s attorney and fighting for his job.
The other three officers involved in Floyd’s detainment still have the backing of the union, for now, until they see more video evidence. Kroll called their firing a violation of police policy since they weren’t able to view all the body camera footage.
The union leaders beside Kroll, two women and a Black officer, both called the video of Chauvin horrific but said it was not representative of the entire force.
“I was devastated by what I saw,” said Rich Walker, a Black Minneapolis Police officer and a director of the police federation. “I believe that we could do better. And we’re hoping for a better future.”
The killing led to massive demonstrations and an international movement to recognize the nation’s long history of racial inequality and police brutality, especially against Black men.
But Walker, Kroll and the other two union leaders said they did not see race in the video.
“As far as race goes, you have a white cop, you have a Black cop, you have an Asian cop, you have another white cop. I didn’t see race in any of those cops, and I didn’t see race in George Floyd,” said Anna Hedberg, a sergeant and director of the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation. “I saw a man pleading for his life, a human being.”
Even as the union denies the role of race in Floyd’s killing, political leaders, businesses and other institutions are acknowledging the country’s traumatic racial history.
That tension sets the table for the battle over reform ahead as political leaders and activists insist racism is at the root of police misconduct, while the union argues officers are being unfairly tarnished by a few bad apples.
Minneapolis Police are much more likely to use force against Black people than other city residents. Since 2015, 60% of the police’s documented use of force — neck holds, tasers, punches, shooting — has been against Black people even though just 20% of Minneapolis residents are Black, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
Minneapolis Police are also much more likely to use deadly force against Black people: 63% of people killed by Minneapolis police are Black, according to an analysis by the Star Tribune.
Other research shows Minneapolis Police arrest Black and Native people more than eight times as often as white people for low-level offenses like trespassing, disorderly conduct and public consumption.
Kroll and his fellow union leaders waved away questions about racial disparities in policing, by both questioning the research methods and suggesting the police department has just a few bad actors.
“If you’re asking me if our department is racist, I’m going to tell you that it’s not,” Walker said. “If you’re asking me, do we have room to grow? I would say absolutely. I would say we can’t judge a whole department based on one’s man’s actions.”
Hedberg pointed to wide disparities in wealth, education and health: “I think there is racial disparity in society … to single out one profession is unfair.”
Minneapolis — like the entire state — does have among the largest racial disparities in the country. But the large disparity in arrests and use of force isn’t fully explained by Black people committing more crimes. For example, national data show Black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but Black people are three-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. And researchers have found evidence of racial discrimination in traffic stops and searches.
Hedberg said the public also needs to look at all the crises Minneapolis police respond to in which they save Black people. She says they help victims of domestic abuse and gun violence, regardless of race.
“At no point do those officers sit and say, ‘Eh-eh. Today’s not the day. That’s a Black guy. I’m not going to save this person’s life,” Hedberg said. “We have saved more Black people than we have killed.”
In the weeks following Floyd’s killing, Minneapolis has seen a surge of gun violence, with more than 100 people shot just in the past week. Kroll and the other officers denied there was a work slow-down in retaliation for the protests and resolution by the city council to dismantle the police department.
“It’s a wear down not a slowdown,” Kroll said. “They’re getting worn out. They’ve been working non-stop with limited resources.”
The police department has been complaining of staffing shortages for years, with Chief Medaria Arradondo saying the force needs to add 400 cops by 2025. Mayor Jacob Frey responded in his budget last year by recommending hiring 14 sworn officers.
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Some city council members balked even at that proposal, showing an unwillingness to spend on hiring any more police officers when many in the city have lost trust in police and want to see the city spend its resources attacking the affordable housing shortage and disparities in health and education.
The union leaders reiterated multiple times that they believed any failures of the Minneapolis Police Department are the result of poor political leadership and blamed the looting and arson that followed Floyd’s death on politicians who ordered them to pull back.
“What people are failing to recognize is there’s been one political party in charge of the City of Minneapolis for the last 30 years,” Walker said. “So if there is systemic racism, if there is a problem with how minorities are treated, certainly they’re part of the problem.”
This week, Frey said he was calling in back-up from other law enforcement agencies across the state to help respond to the surge in violence. The union leaders pointed to that as evidence the department isn’t fully staffed.
“If we had enough cops, we could solve our own crimes,” Walker said. “We should be able to protect the citizens, the visitors, the tourists and the business owners ourselves. And if they gave us the appropriate amount of cops to protect our city, our city would still be thriving right now.”
Despite loud voices calling for defunding and abolishing the police, Kroll said the city is filled with residents who rely on officers to protect them and support the department.
“Most of this is Black-on-Black crime, and our officers are out there,” Kroll said. “And they do have support within the Black community … and it’s misreported that they don’t.”
They wouldn’t discuss how the union might fend off an attempt to completely dismantle the department, calling the idea ridiculous.
“I think it’s completely ludicrous to think that the answer is to fire all the cops and start new because at the end of the day, police officers aren’t created in a machine, they’re created from society,” Hedberg said.
They also dismissed reforms like breaking up the bargaining unit so that supervisors and rank-and-file officers wouldn’t be in the same union, which political leaders and experts have pointed to as a barrier to reform.
“Our members don’t want to,” said Sherral Schmidt, sergeant and vice president of the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation.
The police chief recently called off contract negotiations, which had been stalled for months before Floyd’s killing. Kroll and his colleagues wouldn’t discuss what they expect the major sticking points to be when contract negotiations do resume, but indicated they were ready for a fight.
“After this, there’s going to be a lot,” Schmidt said.
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