After year in spotlight, morale is down among US police
CHELSEA — With US police under renewed scrutiny since the murder of African American George Floyd, the attention is starting to weigh on many officers who feel good cops are being unfairly lumped in with the bad ones.
“That’s a conversation that you basically… hear almost every single day,” says Jose Rodriguez, an officer in the Boston suburb of Chelsea.
A year after Floyd’s death at the hands of a white policeman, many officers talk about ditching their careers in law enforcement, Rodriguez says, with morale “just down as a whole in our profession.”
Floyd, who was 46, was killed on May 25, 2020 by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes and is awaiting sentencing for murder and manslaughter.
The case sent shockwaves around the world while the police killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans has prompted a reckoning with racial injustice and police brutality at home.
While the Black minority had for years denounced police violence, the majority of Americans, in particular white people, had retained a lofty image of police that is now being tested to the limit.
Many officers are throwing in the towel: in New York City, home to the nation’s largest force, about 2,600 police employees left last year versus only 1,509 in 2019 — excluding retirements, which also surged.
‘Afraid to speak’
While Chauvin was brought to justice, the vast majority of officers who kill in the line of duty never face consequences, in part due to qualified immunity, a doctrine that shields them from civil action. Civil rights activists, victims’ families and Democratic lawmakers want that to change.
“I know a few people who have retired. Part of it is because they were in that (age) window,” says Rodriguez.
“But another part of it is because they just didn’t want to deal with liability and just kind of stay in this profession, given the recent events, or the negative light on us.”
Rodriguez’s colleague, Sergeant Joseph Bevere, adds that recruitment has become a problem since Floyd’s murder.
“And that’s a shame… it’s a great profession, because you can help people,” Bevere says, while acknowledging that police have work ahead of them to reestablish public trust.
In addition to the nationwide spotlight on brutality and allegations of systemic racism, trust in policing has been eroded locally, some say, by four years of anti-immigrant rhetoric from former president Donald Trump.
Two-thirds of the population in Chelsea is Hispanic.
“In the Spanish community, I know that a lot of people are afraid to speak with us,” said Rodriguez, highlighting undocumented migrants in particular, who fear deportation.
Chelsea police do not work with immigration officials, the officer said, adding: “Sometimes we just have to ground people and kind of reassure them.”
Officers in Chelsea pride themselves on developing close relationships with the public as a means of keeping a lid on potential flare-ups, according to Bevere.
“We’ve done things that I think put us in a position to make sure that some of the stuff that’s happened throughout the country doesn’t happen here,” he said.
In the mid-1990s, Chelsea police chief Edward Flynn — under pressure from activists — made diversity a priority in recruitment. That was a turning point, according to Gladys Vega, director of the local community group La Colaborativa.
Chelsea now has one of the most diverse police forces in Massachusetts.
“The relationship that we have built with our police department, people should learn from it because it works,” said Vega. “We have constant communications.”
Vega says the prevailing assumption now is that the police are “here to serve, whether people are undocumented or not and that force is not the way to go.”
Many in the Chelsea police department, including current chief Brian Kyes, are optimistic about the arrival of body-cameras that officers will wear on patrol.
“Because of what’s happening around the country, it has kind of painted all of us with a very broad brush,” said officer Paul McCarthy.
McCarthy says he and his colleagues have gone to great pains to become “part of the community.”
“To have something that happened on the other side of the country, take what we’ve been doing and paint us with that same brush — it’s disappointing,” he said.
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