Letter: George Floyd and Gloucester

AP file photo/Carolyn KasterIn this Aug. 28, 2020, photo, people carry posters with George Floyd on them as they march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington.

To the editor:

Perhaps the most important lesson from the killing of George Floyd is the shattering of the “one bad apple” theory of police misconduct. Three other officers stood by while Chauvin choked Floyd and the Minneapolis police department officially tried to cover the killing up by issuing a press release dismissing it as “Man dies after medical incident during police interaction.” Had Floyd’s killing not been public, it was on its way to being hidden forever by the entire department.

How do we empower the good police while getting rid of the institutions – like the Minneapolis police PR office – that protect the bad ones?

Police policies in America are the result of choices made by local decision makers. That means that the responsibility for making sure we have modern, data-driven public safety policies in place here in Gloucester is squarely on the shoulders of those of us who live in Gloucester.

With that in mind, a few of us have been getting together over the past few months to look at the city’s policies to see what, if anything might be done to insure that our law enforcement officers only use force when absolutely necessary and treat everyone they encounter equally and with respect.

We’ve also been looking at ways to reduce the number of encounters between armed law enforcement officers and the public, while making sure that when armed officers are needed, they will be there, and will have the tools to do their job without unnecessarily risking their own safety.

It turns out that here in Gloucester there’s a lot we’re already doing right that a lot of other places aren’t.

For example, Gloucester already permits the use of force only when other tactics won’t work, and only allows lethal force when necessary to prevent death or serious injury. All of our officers also have an affirmative duty to intervene whenever they see another officer using excessive force. That’s not true in a lot of jurisdictions.

But there are also policies we need to take a hard look at. For example, what happens when Gloucester police violate city policies, or worse, break the law themselves? What happened, for example, with the mysterious departure of former Chief Leonard Campanello in 2016? He was accused of putting at least two women in fear for their safety, destroying evidence and lying to the mayor.

When the city’s top law enforcement officer is facing those kinds of charges, the public should be told what happened, and what is being done to keep it from happening again, but our city has kept that story tightly under wraps. That’s something we’ve also been working on.

We’ve been looking too at whether Gloucester should station armed police officers in our schools. The cost of having police at the high school is not insignificant and the money we spend on that is money we don’t have available to spend on teachers, counselors or social workers.

Research suggests that school resource officers don’t make schools safer but do have a harmful effects on students. We’re looking at that research, and at the cost, and trying to see what approach makes sense for Gloucester.

Another key issue: How many of our police calls are for mental health crises, welfare checks, or substance abuse? There’s a great program in Eugene, Oregon, that sends out crisis workers trained in mental health on those type of calls instead of armed police officers. It’s had some amazing results and saves the city about $8.5 million every year. Is that something Gloucester should consider? We don’t know, but we’re researching that option.

We’re working on putting together the information we’ve been able to gather to share it with the community soon as the basis for a larger conversation that includes all of the stakeholders: police officers, policy makers, administrators, taxpayers, crime victims, and anyone else who comes into contact with law enforcement.

Our goal is to build a consensus around sensible, data-based public safety policies that will keep us safe while treating everyone, from every walk of life, equally and with respect.

I think our law enforcement community already wants to do that. We want to make sure that Gloucester has the right data-based policies in place to help make that happen.

Stephen Voltz


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