Police try to defuse George Floyd tensions by locking arms with angry protesters

"No one is defending this cop," an expert on community policing says of the fired Minneapolis officer.
Image: Flint Michigan Deputy
A Genesee County Sheriff's deputy raises his fist in solidarity alongside protesters as hundreds march at a peaceful protest seeking justice for George Floyd, on Miller Road in Flint Township, M.I. on May 30, 2020.Jake May / The Flint Journal via AP

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By Corky Siemaszko

Faced with furious demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd in police custody, a Michigan sheriff stripped off his riot gear and joined the marchers.

"I want to make this a parade, not a protest," Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson declared as the crowd burst into applause. "We'll walk all night."

In New Jersey, Camden County Sheriff Joe Wysocki defused a tense situation by joining marchers and helping carry a banner that read "Standing in Solidarity."

"I was welcomed with open arms," Wysocki told NBC's "TODAY" show. "That video shocked every good cop in the United States."

Wysocki was referring to the horrific video of Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, who was subsequently fired, with his knee on Floyd's neck, images that shocked the nation and sparked several nights of protests and sometimes violent clashes between demonstrators and law enforcement.

And in New York City, Chief of Department Terrence Monahan, the NYPD's top uniformed officer, took a knee Monday after telling protesters who had just pelted police with debris that "this has got to end."

"We all know Minnesota was wrong" he said. "There’s not a police officer over here that thinks Minnesota was justified."

While the nation has been riveted by images of police battling protesters and as President Donald Trump demanded Monday that governors clamp down harder, some police departments have been trying to quell the violence by locking arms with protesters.

But even as the actions of law enforcement leaders like Wysocki and Swanson have been praised, policing experts said that there is no "one size fits all response" and that what worked in these instances could backfire in others.

"The problem is that catalytic events like the killing of George Floyd are a siren call not only to those seeking peaceful reforms, who constitute the majority, but also to the constellation of unstable, angry and violent interlopers who seek to exploit divisions or loot rather than achieve peaceful change," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, who walked a beat in Harlem as a New York City police officer before he became an academic.

Bill Bratton, a senior law enforcement analyst for MSNBC who led the police departments in Boston, New York and Los Angeles, said shows of solidarity with demonstrators can help change the perception of the police. He noted with concern, however, that the front page of the New York Daily News on Monday showed New York officers taking a knee in memory of Floyd.

"That cannot happen, laying down your arms, when the agitators and anarchists are purposely engaging police to incite, to injure, to maim," Bratton told Craig Melvin on "TODAY."

Right now, "police are being attacked, and it would be impossible for them to lay down their arms," Bratton said.

Full coverage of George Floyd’s death and protests around the country

Speaking earlier with Melvin, Swanson said his decision to ditch the riot gear and march with the protesters was "spontaneous."

"It made the most sense that when I saw the crowd and felt the frustration and the fact that we were only accelerating the issue, it was time to take the helmet off, go to the shot caller, the lead organizer, give him a big old fat hug and say, 'What do we need to do?'" he said.

Swanson said he knew he was taking a risk.

"It was probably the worst tactical decision I could make by taking off all of my protection and going into the crowd, but the benefit far outweighed the risk," Swanson added. "I'm not trying to be macho or a hero. I just tell you that was the best decision to show that I am not trying to create a divide — I'm going to show vulnerability and walk in the crowd and make the first move."

Brian Higgins, an expert in crowd management security at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, who was police chief in Bergen County, New Jersey, said the approach Wysocki and Swanson took is consistent with community-based policing, which puts a premium on building a relationship with the public.

"But there are people who are hellbent on causing a problem, and not all of them are coming from the outside, as I've heard some mayors say," Higgins said.

Levin said a chief who takes that kind of risk has to know his or her audience — and they have to know him or her, too.

"A chief has to be able to read the crowd, and a lot depends on what kind of relationship the chief had with the community prior to all this," Levin said.

Case in point: Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields waded into an angry crowd and directly addressed demonstrators.

Even in Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb that was torn apart by violence in 2014 after a white officer fatally shot black teenager Michael Brown, there was a show of solidarity between the people and the police.

Last week, several police officers were recorded joining protesters in honoring Floyd's memory by taking a knee, the silent gesture of protest against police brutality that swept across the NFL and so outraged Trump and his supporters.

But Levin warned that "peaceful protesters and police can be sitting ducks for any opportunists who want to take advantage of the chaos."

And police can't be seen as picking a side.

"It does put police in a bind in that they are supposed to maintain order and not support a particular police viewpoint," Levin said. "The best kinds of outcomes occur when protesters and police find some kind of alignment, and that happens more than you think. When it doesn't, it ends up on the 6 o'clock news."

Higgins said that what's remarkable about the Floyd tragedy is that most cops he's spoken with have picked a side, and it's not with the four Minneapolis police officers who were fired in connection with Floyd's death.

"No one is defending this cop," Higgins said, referring to Chauvin, who is charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.