Protesters, some holding up phones, facing police in riot gear
Richmond, Virginia, on June 14. Eze Amos/Getty Images
Politics

“In One Day, We Became the Worst Things in the Country”

How cops are talking about George Floyd’s killing and the protests sweeping America.

This country is changing its mind about the police. Over the past few years, Americans have watched countless videos of police brutality against Black people. They’ve witnessed, or participated in, the formation of a massive social movement dedicated to the preservation and celebration of Black lives. And their perception of police forces has shifted: A Monmouth University survey conducted at the end of May found, for the first time in polling history, that a majority (57 percent) of Americans and a plurality (49 percent) of white people think police officers “faced with a difficult or dangerous situation” are “more likely to use excessive force if the culprit is black.” That’s an increase of 24 points among all Americans and 23 points among white people since Monmouth’s 2014 poll in the wake of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo’s killing of Eric Garner.

Police officers have been watching those cameraphone videos too. They’ve witnessed, or participated in, the formation of a movement for “blue lives” in response to the movement affirming Black ones. More recently, they’ve been confronting Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd, the widespread protests against racism and police brutality, and the calls to defund or abolish police that have entered mainstream policy discourse as never before.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a cop who thinks his job ought to be bound for obsolescence. But law enforcement officials are processing this moment in American history in a wide variety of ways. Some officers are beating protesters and journalists in the streets. Some are beseeching their colleagues to listen to what the demonstrators have to say. Some are defending their profession on social media to strangers who reject the idea of a “good cop.” Some are considering a career change. Some police officers are drawing on their experiences as Black Americans to explain the protesters’ grievances to their co-workers. Many remain convinced that, in most cases that aren’t as cut-and-dry as Floyd’s killing, civilians who end up injured or killed by police could have avoided their fate if they’d simply followed officers’ orders.

Over the past two weeks, I spoke to seven current and former cops about the protests and the future of policing. (They by no means constitute a representative cross-section of U.S. police officers; compared with the national police demographic breakdown, those who eventually agreed to speak with me were disproportionately people of color, women, and/or LGBTQ.) All strongly denounced Chauvin’s actions but disagreed on almost everything else: whether jurisdictions should divert funding from police departments toward other public services, whether law enforcement systems are peppered with a few bad apples or besieged by wholesale rot, whether claims of racism in police forces are substantiated or overblown. What follows are excerpts from our conversations, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jacob, 32, police officer in Georgia

I haven’t heard anyone in my department defend the killing of George Floyd. That’s how extreme the situation was with Floyd, between the fact that it was all recorded, to the total lack of humanity of the officers involved, to the eight to nine minutes of watching someone die, where you really can’t say anything in defense. And traditionally, as cops, we are defensive. But in this situation, everyone’s like, “Yeah, that was jacked up for sure.”

The protests have made us as law enforcement very uncomfortable—but it’s a necessary uncomfortable. My view on the protests is: We’ve seen the masses come out and say what they want done. And if it were a small group of people, you could kind of cast it off as “oh, this is just one fringe group.” But when you have police agreeing with it, and you have millions of people in the streets saying it needs to be changed, it’s kind of like, yeah, maybe we need to look in the mirror and change it.

I have been offended by calls for the abolishment of police. I don’t want that message to dilute the real message of defunding police departments, because defunding police departments makes sense. In most jurisdictions, public safety expenses exceed other expenditures by a large margin. Those funds should be allocated to improve education and social services, and to assist the mentally ill and homeless populations. And the whole bad apple–versus–good apple argument is just tired to me. It deflects from the real systemic problems that exist. Without widespread changes, the apples don’t matter.

My wife and I have conversations every day about the protests. I’m white, and she is Black. We agree with their messaging and calls for dramatic reform. We do, however, disagree on one front: property damage. From my wife’s point of view, she has seen peaceful protests many times before in this country, and sometimes they bring about incremental change. But in this instance, she believes more dramatic changes are needed, so more intense protests are needed. My view is that property damage will give opponents of police reform a crutch to fall onto. It will taint the overall message in the eyes of our leaders.

I’ve seen a lot of pendulum swings. Departments will go through phases where officers are on board with reform, but then if some officers get hurt, you might see officers saying, “Hey, we need to get things back to the way they used to be.” We go through times when police enforcement is proactive, then it becomes reactive. We become experts in deescalation, then we have an incident and we refocus on harsh enforcement of laws. It changes for each department depending on how morale is in the community and what’s viewed as acceptable.

When I first started out in law enforcement, in Florida, that police department and academy were very paramilitary. You’re really conditioned for that warrior type of mindset. You get trained from a SWAT perspective; it’s totally different from patrol or community-oriented policing. In a class like that, we’re doing physical training, defensive tactics every day. They were emphasizing takedown maneuvers, how to use force. The training emphasizes having a plan and being firm in what you do, which is necessary. But you gotta know when to switch those hats. Because if you’re trained to be paranoid and always have a plan to kill somebody. … There’s a saying in police departments, “I’d rather be tried by 12 than carried by six.” That is a common phrase thrown around: “Hey, I’d rather be in court charged with manslaughter than be killed in the line of duty.” We all want to go home at the end of the day, but if you’re teaching people that mindset, it is devaluing the person on the other end.

In my department in Florida, it was mostly white police officers, and we were policing this very low-income African American neighborhood. You could see these officers that were not really from that sort of background— there would be communication issues. When you have that soldier mindset, you’re basically giving orders. There’s really no time for open dialogue to take place. It’s kind of, “I’m telling you to do this. Do it.” That kind of rubbed off on me early in my career. It really opened my eyes.

I’ve seen officers be abusive and escalate situations. One particular incident, an officer kicked a teenager in the teeth. He ended up getting terminated. One of my first nights out, with my training officer, we were patrolling one of the rougher neighborhoods in the city. We saw two black men with a pit bull walking on the wrong side of the street. In Florida, there’s a law that if you’re a pedestrian, you have to be walking opposite the flow of vehicle traffic. My training officer jumps out the car, so I jump out the car. The tone he used to simply confront them was—it shook me. We were stopping them for a pedestrian violation, but it almost seemed like we were at a robbery in progress.

I got so discouraged by what I was seeing and doing and not really liking the type of person I was becoming that I left policing entirely for a couple of years and managed retail for a while. It wasn’t until I met my wife and had a daughter and a stepdaughter when I felt I wanted to do something greater. I wanted to help make things better by getting back into policing.

Now, I’m about to get my master’s degree in criminal justice. In my classes, we’ve had to do deep dives on the Ferguson Police Department and CompStat up in New York and see how different methods of policing have certain repercussions, and why sticking to old methods is not going to work going forward. Look at Ferguson: The demographics of the police department were significantly different than the community it was policing. I’m trying to get into more supervision, to try to fix things going forward.

A line of cops in riot gears stands below traffic lights and street signs.
Atlanta on May 30. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Maurice Henry, 34, patrol officer, Kansas

The past few weeks have been really difficult for me, because I see both sides of it. I see that police officers are good people. Me personally, I haven’t seen any bad police officers—but I’m not saying there aren’t any in our department. But I also know what it’s like to be Black and for someone to call the police on you for no reason. 

When I was growing up in Oklahoma, it happened a couple of times. We’d take a shortcut to my mom’s house, or we’d be outside playing basketball, and somebody would call the police on us. The police would show up, and we would have no idea what was going on because we were just being kids. They just told us that somebody called because they thought we were up to no good.

Why did I want to be a police officer? The simple answer is I thought there should be more Black police officers. Where I lived in Oklahoma, I don’t know if there were more than five [Black officers] in the department, in a city of close to 100,000 people. I would hear people talk about their interactions with the police, and I felt like the department really didn’t represent the population.

We’ve talked about [Floyd’s killing] quite a bit. Everybody agrees that it was the wrong way to hold him down. Everybody knows that would be a policy violation here. Our supervisors brought it up, and our interim chief brought it up. He usually doesn’t comment on things that happen outside the city. But he agrees it was bad, it shouldn’t have happened, and George Floyd should be alive. I do think Chauvin should be charged with murder, and everyone I’ve talked to agrees.

My department is mostly white, but there are maybe six Black officers and a couple of Latinos. I do feel like some officers don’t understand why people are so angry right now. A lot of the police officers take an us-versus-them stance rather than good-versus-bad or right-versus-wrong, just because it’s a tightknit job where everybody becomes like family. They’re more apt to defend a police officer even when, to me, it’s clear police are in the wrong. But I think it’s more of an issue of a few bad apples. I don’t think the system of policing needs to change, just that officers need to hold people accountable when they see something like this.

Some of my co-workers have been coming to me and seeing how I’m doing with everything. I explain to them different things in my life, like how the police would get called on us for playing basketball in the street. None of them have had that happen to them before. They don’t know what it’s like to be Black. But a co-worker having that type of experience might open their eyes a little bit.

I didn’t know how the department would react to me agreeing with the protests, and I didn’t know how my family would react with me being a police officer. I’ve had family members who have had bad experiences with police. But I’ve talked to my family, and they’re still happy with me being a police officer. And that has helped the most, that my family’s OK with it. They know that I’m a good police officer; they know that I’m a good person. They know that if anything like what Chauvin did is happening around me, then I’ll step in and make sure it doesn’t get to the point where somebody dies.

Ron* has worked at a police department in a major U.S. city for more than 20 years

I’ve not talked to a single officer who supported what happened in Minneapolis, yet every one of us is being painted with that broad brush. Everyone’s screaming about racism and racial inequality—but is that not what everybody is doing to law enforcement? With racism, people get in power and use that power against another ethnicity. Now, [activists] have a voice because of what happened to Floyd, but they’re using that power against another group. That group happens to be law enforcement. Within law enforcement, you’re starting to hear about, “Why are we being demonized and considered the bad guy?” COVID hit the U.S. and police were heroes. Then in one day, we became the worst things in the country. And what did we do? It’s what one person did. Every profession has its bad apples. Teachers have gotten arrested for having sex with kids, but are people saying “get rid of teachers”?

I taught a class on procedural justice for recruits and officers with a whole section on the African American history with police. I’m 100 percent understanding of it. I can have some empathy for that plight. What I don’t have empathy for is a failure of the movement to denounce … the riots, the property destruction. Is that what the movement wants to be known for?

These days, society is asking police to do more things that they’re not equipped to do. Forty thousand people in the United States commit suicide every year, and what are we doing about it? The answer is, equip a cop to deescalate somebody who’s ready to jump off a bridge? The cops have now become kind of a catchall for everything. Can every cop deescalate a mental health patient? No, even if they get training.

In my career, have I done some things that maybe I wasn’t so proud of? I can’t lie to you. But I also have to tell you there are people out there who have no problem trying to kill me. And how do I discern the difference? It’s all about the person’s behavior. A lot of people want to make cops out to be racist. But when they get in those tense situations, cops are reacting to behavior. There have been some people who have come out and said, “Hey, if you just follow the directions of a cop, you should be OK.” That’s not a bad piece of advice.

[George Floyd’s killing] is more of a clear case versus past examples where officers are struggling with somebody. It wasn’t a highly emotionally charged event. Chauvin was clearly calm, and it’s not like he was wrestling with the guy at that particular moment.

I agree that Black people might be perceived as more aggressive for doing the same thing as a white person. The research shows even African American police officers see African American men as more aggressive. Where does implicit bias come from? Stereotypes, interactions. I’d advocate for this: Every cop who works in what they call a “fast district” or a “minority district,” they should be periodically rotated out to another neighborhood with a similar racial makeup but economically different, with less crime, so they can get some positive imagery of a particular minority group to help replace what they’ve seen. Because how do you counteract implicit bias? You replace the stereotype you have about a particular group of people with positive ones. But if you have an officer who sits in a high-violence neighborhood and the people who live there all happen to be African American or Latino, what’s naturally gonna happen? What’s his thinking gonna be?

Some of my friends have lost friends over this issue. It’s getting to that point. I’ve had to have lengthy discussions with my college-age daughter. She was asked to go protest by her friends. Her comment, and I gotta give her 100 percent props, was, “I’m against racial injustice and the things that have happened, but why do we have to protest against cops?” If I didn’t believe in good changes coming out of this, I’d probably be a very depressed person.

Natalie*, early 30s, a cop in Virginia

Me and my co-workers, we’re all on the same page about George Floyd. What bothers us the most is that the three sat there and didn’t do anything to stop Chauvin. So a lot of the cops were disgusted, and mad because that makes us all look bad. It makes it so people don’t trust the police. I can’t say I necessarily blame them.

Being a cop right now—it’s not good. When I try to defend cops on Twitter, where I like to talk to people about queer TV shows, no one responds. All them are saying, “Fuck the police, defund the police.” And I’m like: “Hey, I’m here, I’m queer, too, and I’m a cop. And I’m saying, some of the stuff those cops are doing, it’s not OK. It’s not all of us.”

A hand is seen holding up a sign that says "Defund the Police."
A protester in New York City on June 19. Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

In real life, the “fuck the police” stuff gets to you. It’s really entertaining when people say that and then five minutes later they ask for help. I’ve seen that a few times. They’ll be like “Fuck the police!” and within the next day I’ll get a call. I’ll be like, oh, fuck me, right? We’re not appreciated until we’re needed.

I understand Black lives matter. Everyone agrees with that. That’s not an issue for me, and it shouldn’t be an issue for anybody else. But when you commit arson and start stealing stuff that doesn’t belong to you, that’s when it becomes a problem. We understand it’s not all of you, but you wanna sit there—I’m sure you’ve seen memes that people have sent around about 1,000 good cops, but if you have 10 bad cops, you have 1,100 bad cops because we’re not holding one another accountable. The same could be flipped, with 1,000 protesters and 10 agitators.

Some of the stuff I’ve seen cops do at these protests is unnecessary. Like, I understand this lady is sitting in front of you and you need her to move. You don’t have to kick her in the face, though. When it comes to enacting reforms [about the use of force by police], most of them have exceptions. So, for example, most departments already restrict shooting at moving vehicles. But if you are trying to run me over with a car, which could kill me, I’m authorized to use deadly force to protect myself or the life of another. In Virginia, we can use deadly force if we have reason to believe the person fleeing has just committed a felony and poses an imminent threat to us or another person. And if I’m authorized to use deadly force, which means it’s a life-or-death situation where I’m in fear for my life or the life of another, I can and will do whatever I have to do to stop that threat. That means I can shoot, stab, beat, strangle, choke—nothing is off limits at that point.

Ramiro Martinez, 41, detective, Temple, Texas

My last 17 years, I’ve seen a big change from when I first started in the attitudes and the culture of policing. It’s been good and bad. Now we’re definitely under the microscope more than we used to be. I wish police departments were a little more transparent in the sense of how we police our own. There’s always this theory that police take care of themselves and things get swept under the rug. In my years in this field, I’ve seen a lot of officers be terminated, a lot of officers be suspended for different violations and breaking the code of ethics. And I think if the public would see that, and we would be more vocal about that, that would kind of help show our community, “Look, we don’t tolerate this.”

When we see [police officers beating people] on the news, we sit there and just chat in the office like, “Man, really, again? What were you thinking?” When we hear about these cops who are slamming people on the ground who are handcuffed and their faces bounce off the concrete—I would vouch for all the guys in my office, none of us would treat somebody like that.

As far as hearing the Black Lives Matter movement, I do hear them. Where I separate myself is when I start hearing the anti-cop rhetoric, defunding the police. A movement that chants, “We want dead cops now,” or “The best cops are dead cops,” I can’t get behind. [Ed. note: When asked where he heard chants like this, Martinez pointed to a 2015 video of Minnesota protesters chanting, “Pigs in a blanket, fry em like bacon.”] And that’s not being a cop—that’s just being a human.

I grew up in an impoverished neighborhood. My dad was an immigrant. There were six of us living in that home with one bathroom. I’m where I’m at because of hard work. And then I’m now told, “You won’t understand because you’re not Black.” But I’m being told this by Black friends who grew up in wealthy neighborhoods, friends who grew up with parents being very successful. We can go back and look at 100 years ago, and yes, if I was living in that time frame, I would be right there marching. But I’ve seen a Black president.

I’ve been struggling. Friends whom I know, whom I’ve grown up with, say I’m a racist because of the person I voted for, although I don’t agree with everything Trump says. I’ve had to pray. I’ve had to seek guidance from my pastor. After 17 years, I’m on the verge of just saying “I’m done” and turning it in. I never thought I would—I thought I’d be a 30-year cop. But I’m looking for other career choices. I’ve been very vocal with my kids: I don’t want them in this field. I want them to be something else. Because it’s only gonna get worse. They’re voting to [disband] the Minneapolis Police Department. I don’t want my boys to do this.

Katie Miller, 30, former officer at the Metropolitan Police Department in the District of Columbia

I’ve noticed a lot of my former colleagues with D.C.’s police department outright condemning Chauvin’s actions, which isn’t something that I had seen in the past, to be honest. Usually there’s a little hesitation about “Let’s wait and see where the investigation goes.” But when it came to seeing that video, I knew, and my former colleagues knew, that what they were seeing was enough to condemn him morally and obviously that criminal charges would be forthcoming. That vocalness among police officers is something I haven’t witnessed in the past that I find to be really encouraging.

When I was a cop, we’d have conversations about these shootings, focused on understanding the circumstances around them and what went wrong. There was some room for disagreement about whether an officer handled it in the correct way. Tamir Rice’s killing is a good example of that. There was a tactical mistake, and that was driving that car right up next to a person whom you didn’t know anything about. Why would you do that and basically plop your partner out right in front without any cover? In front of a person who allegedly has a weapon? It’s not smart police work. But there was another layer to that conversation that some of the Black officers brought up, which is: Would there have been the benefit of the doubt given to Rice if he were a white boy as opposed to a young Black boy?

Some violence stems from the fact that there’s a lack of manpower in a police department. If you don’t have enough people working your shift, these 911 calls don’t stop. They just keep building up. If you’re working an evening or weekend shift, you’re working those eight or 10 hours straight, responding from one call to the next call. There’s a sort of keep-it-moving mentality. I think that bumps up against a lot of the tactics advocates are calling for, such as deescalation. Deescalation takes time. That means you need to slow it down. When you get to a scene and someone’s upset, instead of having to worry about the three or four calls pending after the one you just responded to, you need to be able to stay and have the space and lack of pressure to say, “I’m gonna take my time and talk to this person and really figure out what the problem is.” A department that’s adequately staffed can afford to have a softer approach to these issues. So in order for calls for defunding police or reducing police budgets to be in the best interest of communities, I think those calls need to be accompanied by a radical rethinking of what we’re asking police to do.

I think the cops policing the protests are beat down, for sure. A lot of them haven’t had days off for a really long time since the protests began. So I think there’s a sense of exhaustion. But I think a lot of social movements in history would prove that these kinds of protests are necessary to change America’s relationship to policing.

I also think there are a number of issues where the old-school police officers are not seeing eye to eye with the rookies and the younger generation. When I was a cop, I had a friend who was new on the police force. He responded to a call, and somebody came up to him and pushed a finger into his chest, as a way to disrespect him. And my friend’s response was not to do anything. And the next day in roll call, which is where everyone gets dogged out for anything that happened the night before, somebody stood up and said something along the lines of, “Yeah, you’re a police officer, I get it. But you’re a man first, and you don’t let another man touch you like that.” That was a total generational divide. Like, there’s something about this man’s work that’s caught up in his gender identity. It represents a rather inflexible form of policing, I guess, to put it nicely.

When you walk into a roll call room, it’s all arranged according to seniority. So all the younger officers have to sit at the front, and the people who’ve been on for two decades, they get to kind of do what they want in the back. They’re smoking and joking, and the people up front are diligently taking notes in their uniform. Their shoes are still shined and everything. A lot of the older officers were working when crack hit D.C. really hard. They always bring up the tagline of D.C. having been the “murder capital.” Like, if they’re training somebody, they’ll say, “All right, you need to listen to me because I worked here when D.C. was the murder capital of the United States.” There’s a sense of pride associated with that. And a sense that some of the rest of us might be used to a safer way of life, to being pampered or babied. 

With my family members, I think there was this idea that you need to “back the blue,” especially when I was actually on the police force. They want to support me, so they naturally think this is the side that I’m on, so this is whom you root for. I’ve worked hard with my friends and family to show them that this isn’t as binary an issue as that. I’ve been having conversations with family members about the protests, and especially about the nonpeaceful protesters. I can talk candidly about why that’s not something that upsets me terribly. It’s unfortunate, but also in the grand scheme of things it’s understandable—and effective, to be honest. I think my family can more readily hear that message from me, since I used to be a cop.

The bigger picture to me is the thoughtfulness this is really spurring among police departments and officers, because the situation unfolded as it did and there was space to ask why this happened to George Floyd, to ask why Chauvin felt he could treat this man this way, that undoubtedly keeps pointing back to racism. Police officers often do make split-second decisions, where if there’s any bit of implicit bias, it’s going to come out. There’s a difference between having implicit bias training and a police officer looking inside themselves and seeing that there’s a part of them that’s racist too, regardless of the training they have or how they think of themselves. That seems to be a more abstract but even more important transformation that I think is happening, I hope is happening.

Police are seen standing in a plaza.
D.C. on June 23. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Jillian Hanlon, 54, police officer, upstate New York

I’m more optimistic about the future of this country than I have been in the past 3½ years. Because up until this point, there was so much apathy, so much frog-boiling going on. It was one outrage after another, people getting tired and numb to it. But [George Floyd’s killing] shocked the conscience so much that it woke people out of that torpor.

I’m a liberal, transgender police officer. You aren’t going to find many of us. We know that public safety in general tends to attract people with more conservative ideologies. And part of being a conservative is you’re not so comfortable with change and new things. So if you’re taught police are always right, then all of a sudden when I say, “You know, I don’t really think we should be shooting Black kids in the back as they’re running away from us,” all of a sudden, it becomes a threat. It becomes, “Wait a second, are you really one of us?” It doesn’t mean that officers feel like “Yeah, we should be able to shoot Black kids in the back and get away with it,” but it’s more like “Yeah, that was bad, but look at all these contributing factors.”

I once got into an argument with an officer over nasal Narcan. He was a “let these scumbags die” kind of person. But part of the training [for Narcan, an emergency treatment for opioid overdose] is: We humanize people. One of the speakers in the training was a mother with three kids, and two of them had died from opioid overdoses. The third one was constantly also having problems overdosing. She pleaded with officers: “Please, this is my last baby. Don’t let my baby die.” And that was what changed that officer’s opinion. He came up to me later and said: “I was wrong. That really hit home. I’m a parent. I can’t imagine losing my child.”

I think the protests could have a similar effect. But it’s a bit of a razor and people can fall on one side of it or the other. Because if you look at some of the crap that went on in Minneapolis and St. Paul—police are using force to punish protestors. I think that right now, they have a siege mentality, and they are just hunkered down and angry and scared and they’re lashing out.

We also have to look at police culture, because that wall of silence gets us into an incredible amount of trouble. It allows us to justify behavior that we wouldn’t permit for anybody else. Those officers in Buffalo [who assaulted 75-year-old activist Martin Gugino]—when another officer tried to intervene and was pulled back, what message does that send? That message says, “We live, they die.” How do you say that you’re the good guy and yet you cheer on somebody who committed an unnecessary act of violence that resulted in a serious physical injury? That’s a police culture problem. The organizational structures of police agencies are very narrow pyramids. You can train out of a police culture problem, but it comes from the top.

*A pseudonym