How the Derek Chauvin verdict will change the future of policing

HARVARD, Mass. — Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict brought about many emotions from the community and police.

“There are some folks that are saying, this is an isolated incident and to a certain extent, some of that’s correct,” said Harvard Police Chief Edward Denmark.  “At the same time, if it happens at all, there’s room for improvement.”

When Chief Denmark isn’t serving his department, he’s helping to train others.  He is one of the prominent voices in Massachusetts and around the country when it comes to training officers in dealing with their own biases and triggers and the biases and triggers of those they come in contact with. Part of the training is figuring out contextual cues when there is a lack of compliance.

“Whether or not that lack of compliance is fear on their part or that lack of compliance, is them wanting to do us harm,” said Chief Denmark. “If you were walking down the street and you were afraid of me and I said, ‘Hey Wale get over here’ and you walked over, that’s irrational. The thing to do, if I’m really afraid of you, is to go the other way.”

There’s a lot of questions surrounding policing right now. Police say officers had a sense of relief after the Derek Chauvin verdict, thinking maybe we can move on, but they quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen on the same day as the verdict and the days after we saw several more police killings. That’s just part of the reason local chiefs say morale with so many officers is down right now.

“The vast majority of good officers are hesitant to do their jobs every day,” said Harvard Police Chief Edward Denmark. “They’re trying to avoid conflict at all costs because they don’t want to be the one that makes that mistake. They don’t want to be the one that’s being accused of being a racist or the next officer that that’s out to kill a person of color, so yeah, morale’s down.”

While the morale is down with police, the morale is also down with many of the communities they serve. The murder of George Floyd has served as a rallying cry for those communities, but those cries were nothing new.

In fact, six months before Floyd’s murder, State Auditor Suzanne Bump released a report saying our police officers’ training and ability to track disciplinary problems was not up to par.

“We found how they were inadequately prepared for a lot of interpersonal issues that police are dealing with that don’t necessarily rise to the level of crime,” said Bump.

This week, that report received the National State Auditors Association Award for helping to enact major policy changes.

“There was a great deal of controversy over the passage of police reform,” said Bump. “One thing that everybody agreed with though was the need for a P.O.S.T. system and now we have it. Before this report came out and action took place on Beacon Hill, Massachusetts was one of only four states that didn’t have a system for qualifying and certifying, and decertifying police officers.

The Chauvin case is now serving as a lesson for recruits and seasoned officers during their training. But that’s just one part of the solution.

Another is the Massachusetts 9-member Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission that Gov. Charlie Baker swore in this week.

“There are some folks, who feel like they are aligned to the community more or some folks who align with the police more because obviously, there’s some police on the, on the P.O.S.T. Commission,” said Rep. Russell E. Holmes. “I’m hoping that police do exactly what they’ve said that is if there is someone that does something that’s egregious that they too will vote to say. This person’s license should be removed and so I’m hoping to see out of the post-commission 9-0 vote.”

“We’re supposed to be there to protect yet people are afraid. That’s a problem. And that’s a problem that’s on us,” said Chief Denmark. “I think that’s my biggest disappointment in the institution itself is the defensiveness to not want to take on that responsibility and say, what is it that I’m doing? What is it that we’re doing that makes my public afraid of me? And how do we address that?”

Chief Denmark is piloting a training session for upcoming recruits partially based on the George Floyd case, part of the goal is mindfulness, to help police think big picture about why they are at each scene they go to. But he says there’s a bigger conversation that needs to happen.

“My question is, how do we train for something where we don’t have a full agreement between the community, the police, and the government on what role we want the police to play,” Chief Denmark said. “It’s like preparing for a game where you don’t know the rules.”

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