In the aftermath of the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, Madison365 hosted yet another town hall meeting on institutional racism — just nine days after a similar gathering brought together teens to discuss the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. The virtual meeting brought the anger and frustration reverberating in the black community to the surface. Joining the meeting were several Wisconsin law enforcement leaders, who have again found themselves within the blast radius of racial injustice.
“The systems of institutionalized racism exist,” emphasized UW-Madison Police Chief Kristen Roman, “and we are within many of those.” Although details are still emerging, it’s known that Floyd was arrested by Minneapolis officers on Monday, May 25. During the encounter, officers pinned Floyd to the ground, with one of them knelt on his neck for several minutes. Video taken by onlookers show that Floyd repeatedly pleaded with officers, saying, “I can’t breathe.” By the time Floyd was loaded into an ambulance, his pulse had already ceased.
After video of the incident exploded online, the four officers involved were promptly fired. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arrandondo expressed regret during a Thursday press conference saying, “I am absolutely sorry for the pain, the devastation, the trauma Mr. Floyd’s death has left on his family, his loved ones and our community.”
The days since Floyd’s death have seen large-scale protests and demonstrations calling for criminal charges to be levied against the officers. Law enforcement has responded to the demonstrations with heavy-handed crowd-control tactics. Riots and looting have also been reported, with several buildings burned this week. Minnesota’s National Guard has been activated to help quell the unrest. Protests were also held at the involved officers’ homes and outside the city’s Third police precinct station.
“I’m angry,” said Marcus Allen, a combat veteran and pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, one of the town hall panelists. “This not our first time being here. And for us, as black people in this nation, this is not our first instance or first time seeing something like this happen. We’ve experienced all of this ourselves.” Allen, a Milwaukee native, recalls the experience of being pulled over as a teenager in the dead of winter. He was “set on the curb all night long just for the police to go through our cars.”
Allen’s experience is not only common in the African American community, it’s ubiquitous. Lawsuits filed against the Milwaukee Police Department over its stop and frisk practices were only recent entries in a decades-long record of similar accounts from the community. These issues are also not unique to a single police department, city or state. So when word surfaces of a situation like Floyd’s death, new life is breathed into festering wounds. In addition to COVID-19, African Americans are also battling the familiar specter of racism in recent weeks.
Changing The Culture
Floyd’s death, like the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, has been dubbed a modern day lynching. The cause, whether it’s violence by police or civilians, seems to lead back to the culture. Allen said he hopes that going forward, white Americans will “step up to the plate and not allow this silence to happen, and be fine with seeing black bodies being dead in the street.” Like historic lynchings, Allen feels that people who do not speak out against modern racial violence are complicit even if they don’t participate in it.
Prevailing cultures both inside and outside “the system” need to be changed in order for the seeds of progress to be planted. Especially since the Ferguson unrest of 2015, triggered by yet another police killing of an unarmed African American man, many police departments have sought to improve their cultural training and community relations.
Chief Roman said during the town hall that incidents like Floyd’s death set those efforts back. Changing attitudes and culture within a department can be a lengthy, complicated undertaking. Not doing so, however, can affect how officers decide to interact with members of the community. For Sun Prairie Chief Mike Steffes, this is clearly demonstrated in how the officers who arrested Floyd behaved.
“Three of them stood by and blocked the crowd from being able to render any aid,” said Steffes, “and didn’t listen when they said, ‘take his pulse.” He sees the clear importance in training officers to “understand their duty to intercede if they see anything like this happening.” In a situation where someone may be in medical distress during an arrest, officers are obligated to provide care until better equipped personnel arrive. When officers so casually disregard this, it can be a clear sign that the culture among those officers is problematic.
Improving that culture not only takes training, but renewed attention to hiring and promotion practices. For Fitchburg Police Chief Chad Brecklin, also a panelist, modifying hiring practices to enrich diversity has been a key project. Fitchburg has a very diverse civilian population, he said, and the department has worked to better reflect this among its personnel. “We no longer have a standardized written test as the first screen,” explained Brecklin. “We now use a process that better measures life experience, background and those sorts of things — ability to speak potentially foreign languages, or having had other sorts of experiences that help broaden their perspective.”
As a female police chief, Roman also understands how difficult it can be for diversity to trickle up the chain of command. “If you have that culture that you’ve cultivated, people will feel safe,” said Roman. A relationship of trust with the community affects everything for police, including when it comes to detecting bad officers. Filing a complaint against an officer isn’t an easy thing to do, and is even harder if the department has a poor relationship with the community. “Even better,” Roman added, “if you have a culture in which we hold one another accountable, and that’s just how we go about our work.” Roman said that encouraging a culture of accountability and intervention has helped improve her own department’s relations with civilians.
Changing culture, however, is a long endeavor. And meanwhile, the tragic consequences of toxic cultures within police departments and in communities continue to pass through news feeds one at a time. Roman applauded the town hall for continuing to facilitate these difficult, yet crucial conversations. “We do need each other in order to make progress on this front.”