April 10, 2021

Out of Tragedy, Hope and Redemption


Dear PERF members, 

It can happen to any police agency, in any community, on any given day. 

A seemingly routine call for service – the type that officers have handled hundreds of times before without incident – suddenly and inexplicably implodes. And because the incident is captured on video, it travels at light-speed throughout the community, even across the country and around the world.

In that one instant, the actions of a single officer can throw an entire police department into a downward spiral. The trust and legitimacy that the agency has spent years constructing can crumble in just a few minutes.

And the impacts are felt not just in the agency where the incident took place. There are reverberations across the policing profession. This one incident undermines public confidence in the police everywhere.

Sadly, there is little that agencies can do in the short term to stop the damage. The trust that was built up over the years, one community encounter at a time, can evaporate in an instant. And every time that images of the incident are replayed, the harm seems to get worse. Regrettably, this takes an enormous toll on the department’s reputation, and on its working environment.    

But then another critical moment happens, that just might begin to turn things around.

With the whole world watching, the former officer whose actions propelled the chaos in the first place sits in a courtroom to face criminal charges. And it’s not just that one individual who is on trial. The very heart and soul of the police department – and policing in general – are on trial as well.

And the question is asked: was this incident an aberration, or does it reflect the values of the department?  At that moment, you begin to sense that redemption may be in the air.

The longest-serving member of the department who heads the Homicide Division takes the stand, and methodically describes how the former officer’s actions were unwarranted. A sergeant who oversees crisis intervention training walks through the Critical Decision-Making Model, which all of the department’s officers are trained on, and explains that protecting life lies at the core of every decision a police officer makes.

The police chief takes the stand and talks about everyone being able to go home safely at night, not just his cops. And he makes it clear that the former officer’s actions violated more than department policy. They violated its fundamental values as well.

Police officer after police officer steps forward and declares that what the former officer did was wrong, both procedurally and morally. Declares that being a good cop means you can enforce the law and do it humanely.

Members of the community also bare their souls. A firefighter who was off-duty at the time describes her offers to help a fellow human being in distress, and how she was ignored and rebuffed. A store clerk describes his feelings of anguish because it was his initial call to 9-1-1 that set the calamitous chain of events in motion. Other bystanders explain their feelings of anger and helplessness as they watched a man literally die before their eyes.

Over the past two weeks, a community and its police department have come together to say, collectively, “This is not who we are. This is not what our police department is all about. This is not what our city is all about. We are better than this, and this is our moment to tell the world just who we are and what we stand for. This is our chance to showcase the humanity of the vast, vast majority our police officers. To demonstrate how our policies have been improved to emphasize de-escalation and helping people in crisis. How our training builds on those policies. And how our values, above all else, are founded on one overriding principle: the sanctity of human life.”

The police and community have come together with a unified voice. They have said that one of our own violated his oath and has taken something from all of us. Our reputation and our sense of community have been shattered by a senseless act of inhumanity. But we will come together and emerge stronger from this crisis.

None of us knows how the trial of Derek Chauvin will conclude, or what the public reaction will be to the verdict. We do know that as difficult and emotional as the trial has been at times, it has given the Minneapolis Police Department and the Minneapolis community the opportunity to paint a more complete picture of their shared values.

For me personally, this was also a moment of enormous satisfaction. I first worked with the Minneapolis Police Department in the 1990s and have the best memories of good cops and a great community. It was gratifying to see them all stand up for what is right and humane. 

Today, the community and the cops are on the same side.  And out of unspeakable tragedy there is hope and redemption.