I was at work as a police officer when the verdict was read Tuesday in the Minneapolis courtroom. I am a violent-crimes detective in my hometown of Savannah, Georgia, but like the rest of America, I was worried about the verdict. I was worried that once again, a jury would, despite clear video evidence of guilt, find it was somehow reasonable for a minor criminal matter to end in the death of the unarmed suspect at the hands of a police officer.
But I was also worried that we would view the verdict as the conclusion of a trial and not the beginning of change. Because as powerful as the murder conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin is, what we do next — as a country in general but as police in particular — will go a long way in determining whether systemic positive police reform is possible. It is in this time immediately after the verdict that several things, which are entirely within my control as a police officer, have to happen.
The first thing is actually something that needs to not happen: Police must not be defensive. We must not circle the wagons. “Not all cops” is exactly the wrong reaction. Even though that is true — of course not all cops are bad — it is also irrelevant. Systemic reform is inseparable from individual change. We need both, and they have to feed off each other. There will be a natural desire by police, myself included, to say that the system worked, that Chauvin was found guilty by a jury of his peers and that a bad apple was sent to jail, no longer around to rot the bunch. Again, this is true, but it is also irrelevant. A nation so tense about a single trial, so uncertain about what was going to happen, is a nation in desperate need of much more. And we all have to take a first step. For me, the first step is that I need to take this verdict personally if I am to change professionally.
Here’s the second thing that needs to happen: We police need to fight the destructive reaction we have resorted to before, saying that if we can’t do our job the way we have always done our job, well then, we won’t do our job at all. We might still collect a paycheck, but we will stop a lot of work because of an exaggerated fear of running afoul of the “new rules.” Rules such as “Don’t treat your neighbors like robots of compliance,” “Don’t escalate trivial matters into life-or-death matters,” and “Treat your neighbors as if they were your neighbors.” That anyone would consider these rules “new” is a problem in itself. Few police officers reading them aloud would take issue with such anodyne statements, but put accountability behind the statements and now they’re an attack, not just on all police but the very foundation of American policing.
Too often I see reaction to the mildest reform or community oversight break down, as everything does these days, into an artificial but deliberate choice between only two options: Do nothing or do it wrong. Faced with criticism that perhaps police should not be turning a traffic stop over an unarmed person’s vehicle registration sticker into something to be resolved at gunpoint, some will say, “What are the police supposed to do, let all criminals just run away?” There is a lot wrong with that reaction. To begin with, let’s slow down on calling someone with registration issues a criminal. And then let’s slow down everything, because we police are rushing to make bad decisions when time is almost always our friend. Tamir Rice most likely would not have been killed for having a toy gun if the police officers had not rushed right up to him and shot him. There was no violence ongoing at that time; he was alone in the middle of a park. Slow down, I tell myself in almost every police encounter, slow down. The risk to my neighbors by my rushing to a most certain and final judgment in very uncertain and temporary situations far outweighs the risk to myself. I’m often wrong in the initial assessment of chaotic scenes, and so I try to be wrong silently, allowing my judgment to catch up to my reactions, to allow my perception to catch up with my vision. Slow down.
There are more options than “do nothing or do it wrong.” We the police do not tell our neighbors — those whose communities we police — how we will do our job. They tell us. In that truth is the heart of the matter. And in my heart, on this matter too, I need to take this verdict personally so I can improve professionally.
I don’t know the third thing that needs to happen to lay the foundation for sweeping positive change in American policing, because I’m so focused on the first two. I’m worried. I’m even scared. Not of uncomfortable sweeping change but that it might not happen. There is nothing easy or comfortable about any of this — for anyone. To change policing in America requires confronting issues of race, poverty, inequality, injustice — the very issues too many in America say aren’t even issues anymore, as if history and its terrible weight started today.
I believe I was wrong for some time about not taking this personally. I’ve often told myself to not take well-deserved criticism of police misconduct and crime personally, because while as a police officer I am responsible, I was not personally responsible. I even wrote about this very thing in The Washington Post last year after the murder of George Floyd. I know what I meant; I meant that I must not get defensive and to accept responsibility even if I wasn’t to blame. But I now don’t think that’s enough, at least for me. I think I have to take it personally: I have to be offended, I have to be outraged, and I have to act. For me, acting means I need to understand the goal of every 911 call, and that compliance is not a goal; it might be a path to a goal, but it’s not the goal. For me, acting means putting my neighbors first at every instance. It means often to act slower, to slow down, to give my neighbors the benefit of the doubt because they are the point of my job.
None of this is abstract, none of this is a metaphor. All of this is senseless death in needlessly life-or-death situations. And all of this is personal.
I was at work when the verdict came in; I’ll be at work tomorrow, taking this verdict personally because my neighbors demand it. And they have always deserved it.
Patrick Skinner is a police officer in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia. He is a former CIA operations officer and served in the United States Coast Guard as well as the U.S. Capitol Police.