Police accused of wrongdoing can usually count on the blue wall of silence — protection from fellow officers that includes everything from shutting off body cameras to refusing to cooperate with investigators. But that’s not the case with Derek Chauvin, with many colleagues quick to condemn his actions in George Floyd’s death, some even taking the stand against him.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testified that Chauvin’s kneeling on the handcuffed Floyd’s neck was “in no way, shape or form” in line with department policy or training. Homicide detective Lt. Richard Zimmerman testified, “If your knee is on a person’s neck, that can kill him.”
Chauvin’s former supervisor, retired Sgt. David Ploeger, testified that the force used on Floyd went on too long and should have ended when the Black man was handcuffed and stopped resisting. An inspector acquainted with Chauvin for two decades and an officer who said the defendant spent a day as her training officer took the witness stand as well.
The criticism didn’t start at trial. Fourteen officers, including Zimmerman, signed an open letter last year saying Chauvin “failed as a human and stripped George Floyd of his dignity and life. This is not who we are.”
It’s unclear whether officers are becoming more willing to call out a colleague, or if the extraordinary circumstances of this particular case are at play. While police agencies across the country have instituted reforms that promote more ethical behavior, some experts say the unblinking video of Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck as the dying man pleads for air is the impetus for fellow officers to stand against Chauvin.
“I sincerely wish I could see a crumbling of the blue wall, but sadly I do not see that,” said Bill Hall, a former Justice Department mediator who handled brutality cases, and a political science adjunct professor at Webster University in Missouri.
The damning police testimony — and the public criticism — against Chauvin is coming from the top of the department, not patrol officers. All 14 signers of the June letter were ranked as sergeant or higher. Hall said supervisory police officials have incentive to show the fault lies with the officer, not with their policies and procedures.
Still, in June, the head of the Minneapolis police union, Lt. Bob Kroll, a usually militant defender of officers, agreed that Chauvin’s firing was warranted, calling what was shown on camera “horrific.” Meanwhile, the three other officers charged in Floyd’s death, fired soon after and facing their own trials in August, are likely to blame the far more senior Chauvin for what happened.
The number of Chauvin’s Minneapolis colleagues who have turned on him is telling, said Rick Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“We don’t usually see a dozen or more police officers from the very same agency come out opposed to the actions taken by a police officer,” Rosenfeld said.
It’s a far cry from the code of silence that has surrounded cases of police brutality and killings for so long in so many places — including Minneapolis.
In 2017, Officer Mohamed Noor shot and killed Justine Ruszczyk Damond as she approached Noor’s squad car in the alley behind her home. Court testimony showed that an incident commander turned off her body camera when talking to Noor shortly after the shooting. Other officers told him not to say anything. Prosecutors told the court that about 20 police officers refused to talk to investigators and met with union officials to discuss withholding information.
Noor was one of the rare officers to be convicted anyway. He is serving a 12½-year prison term.
In another Minnesota case, former St. Anthony officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in the July 2016 killing of Philando Castile. Fellow officers were in court throughout that trial supporting Yanez.
Chauvin still has the legal support of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. The association’s legal defense fund is paying for his defense, and is obligated to do so because his years paying dues to his local union earned him the right to representation, said Brian Peters, executive director of the association.
Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, is one of 12 attorneys for the MPPOA who take turns handling officer-involved cases.
Some new programs seek to address the blue wall head-on.
New Orleans police in 2015 implemented a program called Ethical Policing Is Courageous,” or EPIC. Training emphasizes peer intervention if an officer is doing something wrong such as committing an assault or planting evidence. The idea is that if one bystander officer intervenes, others will follow and the peer pressure will halt the bad act.
New Orleans Chief of Detectives Paul Noel said Floyd’s death could have been prevented if Minneapolis police had a program like EPIC.
“It would have taken just one officer to say, ‘hey, get off of him,’” Noel said.
But John Kleinig, professor emeritus of criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York, believes that in most cases, police officers will remain inclined toward actions that protect their wayward colleagues.
“For the police, it’s not a simple matter of coverup,” Kleinig said. “There’s a moral impetus to the blue wall of silence. In other words, ‘we owe loyalty to each other.’”