I was standing in my office, eyes glued to the TV, as Judge Peter Cahill read the verdict in the trial against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd last May.
“For the charge of second-degree murder, unintentional, the jury finds the defendant guilty.”
I breathed an immediate sigh of relief. “Every good cop in the United States just said ‘Thank God,’” I tweeted. “A diverse jury just delivered justice.”
Coming from a police chief, this may be a surprising reaction for many to read. I have been a police officer with the Hoboken Police Department for 28 years and have been chief for seven. I was an officer hired under the Clinton crime bill, the year after the Rodney King arrest and beating and the year before the O.J. Simpson trial. Those were two game-changing moments that reset police use-of-force policies and how police handled domestic violence. Police officers at that time had to do an about-face on both.
This is another time that police departments must reckon with existing policies. The May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd, while the country was already reeling from the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the April 20 verdict of convict Derek Chauvin should be looked at as the game changer on police deadly force.
This verdict is a mandate for police executives to turn the page in their approach to this issue and find new ways to police. There needs to be uniformity across the country in these policies. There is an enormous amount of work to do to repair the broken relationship between law enforcement and communities, especially communities of color. Police in leadership positions have a responsibility to change things. Here are three steps that are top of mind for me when thinking about how to move forward:
This is the only way to build community trust from the bottom. The murder of George Floyd destroyed police-community relations, which were already ebbing before we saw the horrific video. One way that police leaders can start to repair this relationship is to be more communicative. The words “no comment” from a police executive have always infuriated me. A question from the media is a police executive’s moment to lead, to spotlight the work officers do, to show all our officers’ challenges, and the most important thing, to build community trust through honest and open dialogue.
More than ever, our officers are dealing with those who have serious mental health issues, drug dependency issues, and homelessness. Officers go on these calls hourly. It’s a unique challenge every call, but we need to equip officers with all tools of referrals to professionals and the training on their approach to these incidents.
Almost all officers carry guns, and most of us never want to use them. It is when training is lacking, officers are outnumbered, and panic sets in when they resort to force at levels that are not necessary. My father, retired Capt. Fred Ferrante, was a training officer for a decade at the Hoboken PD, having to evolve from a 1970s policing mindset to 1990s ideologies. He always said, when assessing the use of deadly force, the initial reason for the police-citizen contact is paramount. If someone has murdered multiple people or fired shots at police officers or is an active shooter slaying innocent civilians, the police are going to be looked at to stop that individual any way possible. When someone is selling cigarettes on the street or running from a motor vehicle stop due to traffic warrants or potentially passing a counterfeit $20 bill — do they require the use of potentially deadly force? The obvious answer is no. Police need to be trained in how to de-escalate situations so that people like George Floyd are not killed.
Police executives, you must seize this moment. We owe it to both our communities as well as our officers. The responsibility is on us.
Kenneth F. Ferrante is the Hoboken chief of police. @kenferrante