Uneasiness is growing in the American police force, forced more than ever to question itself after the death of George Floyd.
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While some recognize the need for reform, others struggle to digest accusations of institutional racism that target law enforcement.
From California to Massachusetts, police officers interviewed by the AFP were unanimously shocked by what they called “murder.” But many complain of being unfairly compared to “bad apples,” like the white Minneapolis policeman who asphyxiated George Floyd by keeping his knee on his neck despite his pleas.
“I’m not Derek Chauvin!” Said Michael O’Meara, president of the New York State police union. “He killed someone, not us. Stop treating us like animals, ”he said recently in front of hundreds of colleagues gathered in Manhattan.
Derek Chauvin has committed “a criminal act” that “makes us ashamed,” Shaun Willoughby, 41, head of the police union in Albuquerque, New Mexico, told AFP. “But it’s really frustrating to be all in one basket.”
The same reproach has been addressed for decades by the black population to American society, where a black man is often a priori considered as a potential danger.
The anger of the demonstrators who took to the streets since the end of May goes beyond the only case of George Floyd. It is the product of a “long history of violence inflicted on black Americans that the police, as an institution, must recognize,” said Louisa Aviles, criminal justice expert at John Jay University in New York.
American police kill an average of three people every day, and “at least half of these deaths are not necessary to save the lives of police or civilians,” said Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at the University of Berkeley.
“The best weapon is the mouth”
African-Americans are notoriously over-represented in these deaths and there is “no doubt” for Ben Kelso, 53, head of the local San Diego, California office of the National Black Police Association.
Saying himself that he had been subjected to racism from an early age, he has no miracle solution to remedy it, but insists on the importance of daily dialogue and on the questioning of police training.
“We spend many hours teaching how to drive, shoot and stop people, but not far from it, learning how to talk to people,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, a policeman’s best weapon is his mouth.”
Many cities have already amended their practices, in particular to prohibit the use of keys to the neck or to strengthen disciplinary procedures. A bill is also being studied at the federal level.
“We are not afraid of reform or change. But we want to be involved in the discussions, “said Michael O’Meara, whose union represents the interests of some 40,000 police.
Branville Bard Jr., the Cambridge, Massachusetts police chief, has long called for this change. He hopes that the “disgusting death” of George Floyd will serve as a trigger.
“I cannot tell you how many times I have been arrested while driving. I show my ID and the situation does not escalate, but I am still afraid because I am carrying a gun and I have a dark skin, “he said.
For Mr. Bard, author of a book on “facies control”, we should start by “increasing the price of faults”, by punishing all the police officers present when abuses are committed, even if they do not participate not actively.
Others are clearly on the defensive. “As professionals, we are under attack,” said Patrick Lynch, 56, president of a police union in New York City, many of whom have not felt supported by local authorities since the protests began.
Richard Wells, who heads another New York union, says tightening sanctions on police will be counterproductive. “The cops will be reluctant to do their jobs, because in any situation they will tell themselves they are in trouble,” he told AFP.
What hurts most a 34-year-old New York peace officer, the son of immigrants, is the growing demand to cut police budgets to fund social and educational programs.
“It is ironic and painful, because we are out every day trying to serve and protect” citizens, he says.