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Eric S. Clifford As chief of police, I knelt for George Floyd to show the people I serve that black lives matter

People in my profession need to truly empathize with how our communities feel about the police and police brutality. I want to lead by example.

On Sunday, something amazing happened: Hundreds of people came to the Schenectady Police Department upset, scared and confused about what is happening in America and in our community. And I knelt to listen, and we heard each other.

I first saw the video of George Floyd being killed on social media on Thursday, May 28. My immediate reaction was that the officer involved had done something horrible and would need to be held accountable; I was thinking like a police chief.

Overnight it weighed more heavily on me, and I thought more broadly about how this could possibly have occurred in 2020. Then, after a friend put a message about the killing on social media that resonated with me, I decided not to sit on the sidelines for this one but to speak publicly about it. I announced on my professional Twitter account that George Floyd's life matters, that I will do my part and that I would say his name. I meant it.

Over the next 24 hours I watched — like most Americans — as emotions ran high and became contagious, and then many large cities began seeing protests that, in some cases, eventually turned violent.

A protest was planned for Sunday, May 31, in Schenectady, New York, where I am the chief of police. The day before, peaceful protests in Albany — the state capital and a neighboring city — turned violent; I immediately became concerned about Schenectady, especially as social media was predicting that the violence was coming our way.

On Sunday in Schenectady, however, people gathered in a park and peacefully protested, making their voices heard, then peacefully marched to the front of the Schenectady Police Department to continue their protest against police brutality and systemic racism. The people who came wanted to be seen and heard — and they were. Along with Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy and my command staff, I watched and observed.

We were concerned that the protest might turn violent, as other protests had in other communities, though our concerns were not with the peaceful protesters but with unassociated instigators from outside our community. It was clear to us that the protest organizers did an excellent job making their intentions clear to all that the protest was to remain peaceful.

As the protest continued, the group organizer asked to speak to a boss. I was briefed on this and immediately said yes. During our meeting, I was asked to come out and answer questions from the crowd, and I was assured that the protest would end peacefully if I did, so I agreed.

I met the crowd of about 100 people at the rear entrance of the police station and, using a PA system in a police car, answered questions asked about police response times in some neighborhoods, the lack of diversity among police officers, why we were responding to their protest in riot gear and what my intentions are moving forward to honor George Floyd. The members of the community who were present wanted honest answers, and I did my best to give them, as well as to respond with empathy and compassion.

I was also asked why I should be trusted. I admitted that we, as a profession and even as a department, are not perfect, but I said we are trying to be better and to meet the expectations the community has for us. I let them know that I do not condone what happened to George Floyd, that no officer who works at the Schenectady Police Department does and that I believe that Black Lives Matter.

Then, I was asked to take a knee with them, and I agreed to do so. I wanted to take a knee because I felt their pain and understand that, as a profession, the police need to truly empathize with how our communities feel about the police and police brutality. When I agreed to take a knee, I was looking to join them and let them know that I care and that we — the Schenectady Police Department — care.

As I took a knee, all of my officers standing behind me wearing riot gear also took a knee. I felt the emotion in the crowd, and they cheered. It was a symbolic laying down of weapons, and I even gained the sense that maybe it was the start of being seen not strictly as a foe but maybe, eventually, as their friend.

Organizers immediately asked if we would march with them, and I said yes. Then one of my officers said he would join us. From there, multiple officers — some holding hands with community members and others holding signs with them — marched around the block to the front of the police station. Every step taken was a step forward as a community.

It is my hope that black and brown members of our community know, and continue to know, that officers value them. While it is difficult to understand fully how they feel, we are open to learning more from them and learning how we can, as a profession, do better. Our communities deserve it. Our profession deserves it. Our nation deserves it.

We came together this weekend to allow our community brothers and sisters to speak, they allowed us to do our job, and, in the end, we walked together in unity, determined to be better people today and every day moving forward.

On May 31, 2020, I was proud to be the chief of police in the city of Schenectady, New York. Our community is strong, and I see us coming together, and being stronger, after this.