Bucking the so-called blue wall of silence, many senior Minneapolis police officers have taken the stand in recent days to decry former Officer Derek Chauvin’s use of force against George Floyd, calling it “unnecessary,” “uncalled for” and antithetical to the department’s ethics and values.
“That level of force to a person handcuffed behind their back ... that in no way, shape or form is anything that’s by policy,” Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, a state’s witness at Chauvin’s murder trial, testified on Monday. “And when we talk about the framework of our sanctity of life [policy], and we talk about the principles and values that we have ... that action goes contrary to what we’re talking about.”
Arradondo’s testimony, along with that of former Minneapolis Sgt. David Pleoger and Lt. Richard Zimmerman, was notable in that it seemed to go against the informal code that discourages law enforcement officers from openly rebuking one another, especially in the courtroom.
“For the first time we are seeing the blue wall of silence crumble,” Alexis Hoag, a civil rights attorney and lecturer at Columbia Law School, told MSNBC on Saturday. “And police officers are testifying against their own.”
But despite these breaches of the “blue wall of silence,” the testimony in Chauvin’s trial may not be the clean break from a deeply ingrained police mindset it appears to be.
“In policing, you’re taught the us-versus-them scenario,” Lorenzo Boyd, a former sheriff’s deputy and the vice president for diversity and inclusion at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut, told Yahoo News. “You’re taught that the only person who really has your back is your partner, and you learn to distrust everyone else.”
David Thomas, a forensic studies professor at Florida Gulf Coast University who formerly worked as a police officer for about 20 years, said the “blue wall” started with the idea that, in an oftentimes dangerous occupation, “you can depend on your fellow officer” for support.
But at some point, long before Thomas joined the force in 1978, this notion morphed into the belief that “you have to support your fellow officer and protect your fellow officer no matter what,” Thomas told Yahoo News. “And that’s what the public sees and that’s what the public understands.”
Thomas recalled an incident in the ’80s, when he was a police officer in Grand Rapids, Mich., in which a police officer testified against another officer in a civil case concerning a drug possession suspect who claimed that the officer on trial beat him with a baton.
After the case, the officer who testified was relegated to patrolling a park that was known for its frequent criminal activity, Thomas said. One day, multiple fights broke out and the officer requested backup. But the officer he testified against, Thomas said, was part of that unit.
“They literally turned around and went the other way to leave him out there by himself,” Thomas said. “So when you think about trust and you think about the blue wall — [if] you break the silence, then you may not have backup.”
The testimonies of Minneapolis police officials during Chauvin’s trial this past week did not surprise Joseph Ested, a former police officer in Richmond, Va., and the author of “Police Brutality Matters,” because he believes that law enforcement’s loyalty-driven code has a key exception.
“They always tell you, don’t put yourself in a situation where I can’t defend [you],” Ested said. “So this is nothing new. What’s new about it is officers have never been exposed this bad to where the department can’t defend them.”
Ested noted that before Chauvin’s run-in with Floyd, the officer had amassed 17 complaints filed against him, including six instances in which Chauvin allegedly used force against people he was arresting, according to USA Today. A Minnesota man who alleged that Chauvin abused him during a 2013 arrest told NBC News that an excessive force complaint he filed against Chauvin with the department was dismissed.
“The problem is these same guys who are now turning their backs on him have been protecting him all these years,” Ested said. “But now he’s put them in a situation where he’s unprotectable.”
Hearing from high-ranking officials like Arradondo is important, Boyd said, but not unexpected.
“You expect command staff to do that because they get to see a 30,000-foot view of policing as a whole,” he said. “And patrol officers tend to only see what’s immediately in front of them. It’s less likely that you see a peer officer, or another patrol officer, somebody at his level, testifying against him.”
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, seemed to emphasize this point during his cross-examination of the officers. While questioning Zimmerman, who said the restraint on Floyd should have stopped when Floyd was handcuffed and on the ground, Nelson seemed to suggest that, as a lieutenant, Zimmerman may be too far removed from the use-of-force tactics that patrol officers may have to use on a more frequent basis.
“When’s the last time you got in a physical fight with a person?” Nelson asked on Friday.
“About 2018,” Zimmerman replied.
“So it’s been a couple of years since you’ve been in a physical fight with a person?” Nelson asked. Zimmerman agreed.
Most of the current and former law enforcement officials to testify against Chauvin so far have indeed been in leadership positions or held a rank higher than patrol officer. The one exception has been Nicole Mackenzie, an MPD officer who previously provided medical training to Chauvin and other officers. During her testimony, she spoke more generally about the incident.
Notably, the officers who were present at the scene, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, all face charges alleging they aided and abetted Chauvin’s actions. In other words, for them, breaching the blue wall could prove an act of self-incrimination.
For Boyd, the dismantling of this culture starts at police academies, where he says officers are often taught to be defensive and not let their guard down, which can translate to a “warrior mentality.”
“A lot of police academies train law enforcement, which is enforcing laws, as opposed to policing, which is providing service,” Boyd said. “Law enforcement is only a small part of what the police do, but yet the role of the police, they still refer to themselves as law enforcement, which is this reactive warrior type of mentality, when they need a proactive guardian mentality.”
Police officers also need to be truly committed to the communities they serve, not just to each other, Thomas said.
“The question I’ve always had is, who have you taken the oath for?” Thomas said. “When you raised your hand and you decided to become a cop, did you take your oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and the constitution of the state that you live in and the laws of that state? Or did you take an oath to support the brotherhood of the badge, no matter what?”
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