After the murder conviction of Derek Chauvin, Black police officers in America are considering what’s changed and what hasn’t in the year since George Floyd’s death.
“There have been very few changes, and I think that’s evidenced by what we continue to see occurring,” says Cheryl Dorsey, a former officer of the Los Angeles Police Department. “I mean, even while all of that was going on with the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, officers still don’t seem to be able to control themselves and give pause when they decide to use deadly force.”
Dorsey is one of three former and current officers who spoke with NPR’s Ari Shapiro — first, in June 2020, following Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, and again this week.
Isaiah McKinnon joined the Detroit Police Department in 1965. He eventually became chief of police and served for five years before retiring from policing in 1998. In California, Dorsey joined LAPD in 1980 and served for 20 years before retiring. And in Ohio, Vincent Montague began his journey into law enforcement in 2008. He’s been an officer for 13 years and serves as president of the Black Shield Police Association, which supports officers serving in the Greater Cleveland area.
In their initial conversation with NPR, the three generations of officers spoke about the complexities of being Black in law enforcement and whether they thought change was possible in the U.S. following global protests about police brutality and racial injustice.
At the time, McKinnon said he was optimistic.
“We have young, white people that’s involved,” McKinnon said. “If this was just Black people doing this protesting, they would say, the hell with them.”
Dorsey was a little less optimistic and said she felt that those in positions of power weren’t committed to permanent change.
“I think that these police chiefs are being disingenuous,” Dorsey said. “You know, they say what they need to in the moment to kind of calm folks down.”
Montague said he was hopeful because Black officers specifically had started speaking up.
“In the past, if a Black woman stepped up, she’s an angry Black woman. A Black man steps up; he’s just angry,” Montague said. “But now Black officers are having more of a voice and are not as afraid to say what needs to be said.”
Following the murder conviction of Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, Shapiro sat down again with the three officers to hear their reflections on the verdict and what they believe has and hasn’t changed since last year.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ari Shapiro: Will you start by reflecting on what we just heard — your voices from one year ago almost? How did what we’ve seen in the last year compare with what you expected?
Cheryl Dorsey: I’m right where I thought we would be. You know, there have been very few changes, and I think that’s evidenced by what we continue to see occurring. I mean, even while all of that was going on with the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, officers still don’t seem to be able to control themselves and give pause when they decide to use deadly force, in my belief, as a first resort rather than the absolute last thing you should use, having exhausted all other tools and opportunities.
Isaiah McKinnon: I think I’m eternally optimistic to a certain extent. But I agree with Cheryl to a certain extent. But let’s go back to the trial of Chauvin. For the first time in my long history, literally, I saw a police department — that is, the chief and there’s a commander — there are other people who stood up and literally said that the officer and officers were wrong. I’ve never seen that. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of officers that were taken to trial who were set free. That’s never happened.
Interesting. So we’ve got kind of the glass half-full and the glass half-empty. Vincent, when you look at this, what do you see?
Vincent Montague: I was optimistic the last time. And the culture of policing — officers don’t want that culture to change. And the officers that I deal with — they’re afraid of the culture changing, and they don’t like to be held accountable. And you can see them saying that at work. Like, gosh, like, guys at work now are getting terminated. Like, Caucasian men are get terminated for things they would not have gotten terminated for in the past.
You mean like racist words and actions — that kind of stuff?
Montague: Yes. I’m happy that we have cameras now and social media to put this stuff out there. And it reminds me of my grandfather telling me about the civil rights movement and when the world seen how racist actions and Black people were being treated in America, and it forced changes to be made. And I think it’s happening now, but it’s not happening how it should be because, like the sergeant said, is that officers are still committing these actions.
I’m curious. Cheryl, when you hear about this — I mean, that officers who do racist things are getting fired, that violent officers in the case of Derek Chauvin are getting convicted of murder — the incidents you’re describing are still happening. How do you weigh those things — right? That there is some measure of accountability but it hasn’t fixed the system.
Dorsey: There’s some measure of accountability, but there’s still so much more to be done. And let me just double back to what the chief had to say about — you know, for the first time in many of our histories, we’ve seen police officers testify against another. There was much being said about the blue wall finally shattering.
But listen. Let’s be clear. That’s a police chief. I don’t give Chief Arradondo any brownie points for doing that because listen. He’s in damage control mode still. He knew exactly who Derek Chauvin was. Derek Chauvin had 18 personnel complaints. [Arradondo] had been the police chief for two years. He says, yeah, I know who Derek Chauvin is. Yet they allowed him to stay in patrol, live to offend again. And but for Mr. Floyd dying, we would see him well on his way to complaint 25, 27. I don’t know how many more he could have amassed.
I’m curious. When these sorts of incidents happen, Vincent, what is the conversation like among officers? And has it changed since the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer?
Montague: Well, amongst African American officers, the conversation in regards to the Chauvin trial — we’re hopeful. And because we’re in this environment, when you go into a office, Fox News is on. And so these officers are repeating what they say. So they don’t agree with the verdict. They don’t think that he’s going to get a lot of time.
You’re saying the white officers or the Black officers don’t think he should…
Montague: No, the white officers. They think like that. So it’s hard going into a work environment when you’re hurting with the community and you’re going to a work environment where people are saying these things.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised after talking to Cheryl and Isaiah, but I am surprised to hear that in the year 2021, the officers you serve with who are white are saying Derek Chauvin should not have been convicted.
McKinnon: Well, you see, it’s — the mindset of these officers is not going to change. I mean, here we are. I joined in ’65. Twenty years later or so, Cheryl joined. Twenty years later, Vincent joined. We’re talking about the same problems, the same kind of individuals. The kind of people that we bring into this field of law enforcement — it’s most important to do a total assessment evaluation of them. Otherwise, it continues.
So if change from the outside doesn’t seem viable and, Vincent, you’re saying change from the inside doesn’t appear to be happening, where does that leave this country?
Dorsey: Well, let me say this because I don’t want to give the impression that there’s not anything possible, right? It’s not going to be easy, I think, is what we’re saying collectively because the problem is systemic. And in most cases, as I often say, it’s top-down. But there are things that we can do. And certainly, when the community get involved and get engaged, as we see with protests and everything else that happens, I think that will start to get the attention. Certainly, every police chief serves at the pleasure of a mayor, who is an elected official. And elected officials understand one thing, and that’s votes. And so there are things that can be done. But the community must get involved and get engaged and demand it.