Updated: 5:17 p.m.
Leaders of the Minneapolis Police Federation say the city needs more police on the streets and are willing to discuss some of the demands made by community members. However, union boss Lt. Bob Kroll is not going away anytime soon.
Members of the federation on Tuesday spoke to MPR News and other local news organizations for the first time since now-fired officers Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane pinned down Floyd for nearly eight minutes while he gasped for breath. Board members said the officers were treated unfairly when they were fired without an internal investigation, which is standard practice. However, they didn’t defend Chauvin, who is facing murder charges.
When asked if he saw anything on the video that would justify termination, board member Richard Walker said yes.
“I believe what I saw, and I believe this wholeheartedly as an individual, as an African American, as a male — I believe what I saw was a tragedy,” said Walker, the first African American to serve on the federation board. “It should have never happened. And we got to move forward and learn from this.”
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According to court documents, Lane allegedly asked Chauvin if they should turn Floyd on his side. Walker pointed out that officers are trained to do that to prevent deaths from what is known as “positional asphyxia,” which can be caused by pressure put on a prone persons’ back.
The union leaders said they don’t plan to challenge Chauvin’s termination. And Walker said they’ll wait until the investigations into the other three officers’ actions are completed before making a decision on whether they’ll help them try to get their jobs back.
Kroll described what he saw on the video as “horrific” and “disturbing.”
“It was a tragedy, every way you look at it,” he said.
Some community members say this “tragedy” and others could have been avoided if the union hadn’t blocked efforts by the current and past police chiefs to change the department’s culture.
Critics say Kroll in particular is too quick to defend officers who’ve been accused of misconduct. And they also say he’s overseen a rank-and-file membership which discriminates against communities of color. Kroll has denied the department has a problem with “systemic racism.”
Protesters took to the streets by the thousands, not only to demand justice for George Floyd, but they also called for Kroll to resign as head of the union.
Kroll said Tuesday that he had a heart-to-heart with members of the federation board about the prospect of him leaving his post.
“In the midst of the riots, if it would quell the disturbance, I considered it,” he said. “And I said, ‘Is this a thing that can make things better?’ And so I asked these guys, and I said, ‘Is this something that would help?’”
Kroll said his board told him to stay put. Now is the time for stable leadership, he said.
Civil rights activists disagree. Nekima Levy Armstrong, founder of the Racial Justice Network, said Kroll has a long history of violating departmental policies, and has been the subject of excessive force complaints and lawsuits.
"His actions are inexcusable, and it's a shame that the rank-and-file continue to support this man as a leader, given his behavior, given the fact that he's sown so many seeds of division and he is unapologetic about his actions,” she said Tuesday.
Armstrong said firing the officers involved in Floyd’s death was the appropriate response, and that other officers who killed or engaged in excessive force in the past should also be fired.
“This should be a standard within the Minneapolis Police Department so they can begin to clean house and uproot those officers who have a very violent and problematic history,” Armstrong said. “That’s how you begin to change a culture. It’s not just about training and policies and platitudes, it’s about taking swift and decisive action against officers who have violated their duties, departmental policies, and the human rights and civil rights of the constituents that they’re supposed to protect and serve.”
Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, said the city has to ensure that policing serves all members of the community no matter their race or income.
"The only way we're going to get there is if police are held to the same standard as everyone else, and they're actually held to a higher standard, not a lower standard,” she said.
Gross didn’t buy Kroll’s argument that police have become wary of getting caught on camera in a high-profile incident. She said it’s clear that Minneapolis police are purposely slowing down their response to emergency calls to make a political point. ”It’s not a big ask, do your job well. This is what the community expects from you,” Gross said. “And when you slow down because you don’t think you can do your job well because of a camera, I think there’s a problem with you, not with the public.”
Minneapolis council member Steve Fletcher said union officials don’t appear to be at the same place as the rest of the city, and are the only people he’s heard arguing that there isn’t systematic racism within the police department. “What I heard was someone who couldn’t say that what happened to George Floyd was bad, he said what happened to George Floyd looked bad,” Fletcher said. “If we can’t even start from that place, we really don’t have a set of common values to work with.”
Union board members say there is a lack of leadership in the Police Department and at City Hall. A majority of City Council members have called for the department to be dissolved. Some are pushing for a ballot measure that would allow voters this fall to amend the city charter in order to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.
Sgt. Anna Hedberg, one of two women officers on the union board, said that proposal is part of why many officers are quitting the department.
“Because right now, they don’t feel like they have the support from city politicians or state politicians and it really makes the job difficult,” she said.
Hedberg said she didn’t have an estimate for how many officers are quitting the force. Last week, Chief Arradondo downplayed the notion that officers are leaving in a mass exodus. He said seven members of the department had left since Floyd’s killing. And Arradondo said many were employees who were close to retiring.
But Walker said some of the officers who left had barely started their careers.
Over the last month more than 100 people have been wounded by gunfire, said Kroll. And in the current atmosphere of protests and calls for abolishment of the department, Hedberg said that’s having an impact on officers.
“Officers are not going to put themselves out there to get the proactive stops to get the guns off the street. Because they don’t feel supported, after the fact,” she said, adding that sometimes making police stops don’t look nice. And no officer wants to wind up in someone’s viral video, added Sgt. Sherral Schmidt, union vice president.
“So if we don’t have the support to do the basic police work — finding the guns and getting them off the street — it’s going to continue,” said Hedberg.
Union leaders are also concerned about the prospect of defunding the department. They said more officers are needed now, especially during this current wave of shootings which have erupted over the city within the past month.
“The crime that you’re seeing right now — this uptick in crime — is a preview of what you’d see if they actually go forward with this defund the police,” said Kroll. “This is a snapshot.”