Editor’s Note: Cedric L. Alexander served some four decades in law enforcement and other areas of public service leadership. A CNN and MSNBC contributor, he is the author of “In Defense of Public Service: How 22 Million Government Workers Will Save Our Republic.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
On Monday evening, police in Minneapolis were called about someone trying to pass a counterfeit bill at Cup Foods, a neighborhood grocery store. Two officers responded to the alleged forgery in progress, saw a man matching the suspect’s description and ordered him out of his car. He complied but then, according to police, “physically resisted.”
What we know next comes from a bystander video on Facebook Live which circulated widely, showing a white officer with his knee on the neck of George Floyd, an African American man. He is pinned down, his cheek pressed into the asphalt of the street just behind the right rear tire of the Minneapolis Police SUV. If he had resisted, he is not resisting now. Clearly, he cannot. It’s a horrific video. But in too many ways, it’s a rerun.
“Please, please. I can’t breathe,” Floyd rasps out on the smartphone video.
“I can’t breathe, officer.”
A bystander off-screen addresses the officers: “He is human, bro.”
As one officer continues to kneel on Floyd’s neck, his partner turns his back on the scene to motion spectators to step back. Floyd? He’s his partner’s problem.
In the meantime, Floyd has stopped talking. Even under weight of the officer’s knee, he had managed to move his head a bit. Now he moves less and less. Five minutes into the 10-minute video, he is motionless.
“Check for a pulse, please,” a female voice calls from outside the frame.
The officer’s knee remains on Floyd’s neck.
Just over seven minutes into the video, the ambulance arrives. As the EMT begins to work, the officer’s knee remains on Floyd’s neck.
“They just killed that man,” a woman says off-camera.
The video prompted widespread condemnation from Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Tim Walz and the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, among many others. The officers involved have been fired.
Six years ago, in 2014, another black man, Eric Garner, pleaded with police officers in New York City who held him in a chokehold, saying “I can’t breathe.” His alleged crime? Selling “loosies” – individual cigarettes – to passersby.
What happened in 2014 and 2020 do share a common root. It is a catastrophic failure of training and an unconscionable failure of culture. Both are derelictions of leadership. Daniel Pantaleo, the then-NYPD officer accused of fatally choking Garner, was fired after a disciplinary trial. He is suing New York City over his termination.
Garner’s words – echoed so wrenchingly by Floyd – became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey on Monday said what should be self-evident to all: “Being black in America should not be a death sentence.”
Then he continued: “When you hear someone calling for help, you’re supposed to help. This officer failed in the most basic, human sense.” In fact, he also failed in precisely the way that the NYPD officer failed six years ago. He failed as a police officer.
He betrayed his oath of office. Sworn to serve and protect the people of his city and to uphold the Constitution of the American nation, he instead, heedlessly and without due process of law, deprived a man of his life, denying him both equal protection of law and the very air we all must breathe to live.
How can this happen in a nation of laws?
Well, of course, we are living in a time of unprecedented stress, as a pandemic virus threatens to deprive each of us of the breath of life. But this is no excuse. What happened to Garner in 2014 took place in a time of prosperity and health.
Police officers are only as good as the training their department provides them. They are only as good as the culture their department creates for them. Both emanate from the heart, mind, conscience and humanity of law enforcement leaders and the city, county, state and federal agencies that hire them.
The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis said in a statement the officers in question were cooperating in the investigation. “Now is not the time rush to (judgment) and immediately condemn our officers,” the statement said. “Officers’ actions and training protocol will be carefully examined after the officers have provided their statements.”
After 40 years in law enforcement, I know that it is possible to do the job with a generous heart, a sound mind, a clean conscience and boundless humanity. I have been honored to lead officers who did all of these things. So I know they can be done. In fact, there is a single manual of instructions that tells you how to do it. It is the United States Constitution. Any department that bases its values and its training on that document – and does so without compromise – will neither produce, hire, nor tolerate officers capable of making the choice to do what was done in New York and Minneapolis.
Fortunately for them, the officers involved in Floyd’s death will benefit from what was denied him: due process of law. I can only hope that police departments across this nation will strive to understand what went so horribly wrong – for the second time in six years – and train and educate their officers accordingly. My fear, however, is that some, at least, will do no such thing. Will we Americans, on whose minds the subject of breathing lies so heavily just now amid our pandemic, relentlessly demand answers and reforms after the death of yet another black man who spent his last breath pleading with a policeman to let him breathe?