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Chester County Press

‘How do we make changes to a system that we know has issues?’

06/16/2020 01:11PM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

Two weeks ago, the New York Times released a 9-minute, 31-seond video on social media that reconstructed the events that led to the murder of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn. on May 25 at the hands of officer Derek Chauvin and three of his colleagues who stood idle while Chauvin applied his knee to the neck of Floyd for a period of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, ignoring Floyd’s words, “I can’t breathe.”

To date, the video has been seen 11,432,907 times.

Over the last several weeks, the incident itself – one piece of footage on a seemingly never-ending loop of video that captures white police officers beating, torturing and killing African American men and women – has ignited a firestorm of worldwide protest, calling for the entire institution of law enforcement to dramatically rewrite its protocol guidelines, revamp its hiring practices -- and in some arguments, be defunded.

When he first saw the raw footage of Floyd’s murder, Kennett Square Police Chief William Holdsworth could not believe what he was seeing.

“I was speechless, and I expected there to be something more that I was missing in the first seconds I saw it aired, but the more I kept seeing it, the more disgusted I became,” he said. “It is hard to believe with four officers standing there, this happened. It was mind-boggling. I saw policing in its worst light.”

Holdsworth was far from alone in his reaction to Floyd’s murder. Chief Gerald Simpson of the Southern Chester County Regional Police Department (SCCRPD) was equally disgusted by what he saw.

“I’ve been in this industry for 37 years, and I have always done it with very gracious and humane reasons and trying to help people,” Simpson said before a Black Lives Matter protest on June 7 in West Grove, where he later addressed a crowd of 300 protestors. “I am still struggling with trying to understand what in God’s name happened that ended this man’s life.

“This man was actually saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Where are your heads at, police officers, to hear that, and not render that man aid? It truly, truly distresses me that this is where some pockets of our nation’s law enforcement are right now. I do know that the Minneapolis police department failed horribly.

“Never did I go into work a day in my life knowing that someone was going to die by my hands,” Simpson continued. “I realized every day that I might be in a violent situation and that I would have to react appropriately within my guidelines, but certainly, I never went into my job ever thinking that I would intentionally, negligently and recklessly take someone’s life, such as what we saw in that video. It was horrific.”

At the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors online meeting on June 3, Acting Chief Matt Gordon said that Floyd’s death was “murder, pure and simple.”

“To make matters worse, there were three other officers who took no action to save Mr. Floyd, which is by the very definition of our oath, the thing that should have happened immediately after the handcuffs were applied,” he continued.

An industry now on trial

While their across-the-board condemnation of the way that George Floyd was murdered served as an overlap of similar emotion, the truth is this: Holdsworth, Simpson and Gordon are three of the leading voices of law enforcement in southern Chester County, but in a larger sense are part of an industry whose entire reputation, and some would say future – is now on trial, under the lens of inspection from the people they are hired to protect.

For all three police chiefs, they said that assessing the origins, the triggers and the policies that have led to the murders of hundreds of African American men and women -- and most recently, 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, who was shot to death by a white officer in Atlanta, Ga. on June 12 – is like waving a deferential cloth of immediate judgment over the entire law enforcement industry. The only proven answers, Holdsworth, can be found in how his own department operates -- and how it hires. 

When he began his career in law enforcement 23 years ago, Holdsworth said that it was common for as many as 150 applicants to seek one position. As law enforcement continues to come under scrutiny in recent years, however, a career in policing has become less attractive, which has resulted in a shrinking applicant pool, he said.

With respect to the increasingly volatile sentiment that points to loose hiring practices that have allowed too many “bad cops” to funnel their way through the system, these smaller numbers, Holdsworth said, are actually better for the industry.

“You’re keeping a lot of people who don’t need to be in this profession out of the industry,” he said.

The vetting process to become an officer with the Kennett Square Police Department, Holdsworth said, includes written testing, oral exams, physical agility testing, polygraph and psychological exams, an investigation of the applicant’s social media history and an extensive background check, which includes interviews with family members, former employers, friends.

“We have our detectives spend days if not a full week digging and digging on each candidate and going as far back as we can,” he said. “I don’t know what vetting processes are in place at other agencies. I have heard some horror stories of some candidates who have made it through without being properly vetted, and I do not know why anyone in their right mind would not take the proper procedure that has allowed some officers to have the authority to take away someone’s rights and apply deadly force.

“I do believe over the years problems have not been addressed properly,” he added. “I think our unions are not doing us justice as they defend these officers, which leaves administrations left not being able to properly deal with this issue. You see officers in some of these larger cities who are moved around, or hidden.”

Once an officer is hired in the department, he or she is beholden to follow its policies and procedures manual, which Holdsworth called a “tool” that he updates regularly. It holds officers accountable for their policing practices, while also providing them with guidance.

It’s also periodically tweaked in response to in-house incidents, statewide and nationwide policy changes, and sometimes, following events such as the murder of George Floyd. On the day after the Floyd murder, Holdsworth updated the “Use of Force” policy to include a carotid restriction to further ban officers form using a choke hold – the application of any pressure to the carotid artery – on anyone who displays physical force or resistance to an arresting officer.

‘What shocks me to the core…’

COVID-19 notwithstanding, 2020 has already been a very trying one for Gordon and his department. Lydell Nolt, the department’s former police chief, was terminated in February; the township is still reeling from the many charges levied upon former township manager Lisa Moore for allegedly stealing $3.2 million in township funds over the past several years; one full-time officer resigned and one additional officer was injured in an off-duty accident that required surgery, and has not returned to full duty.

Now, in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, Gordon has had to soldier a splintered department forward.

Immediately after the murder of Floyd, Gordon sent the departments’ use of force policy to all officers and had them respond that they had reviewed it. He also shared information listed on a national police network that specified proper guidelines for reacting to such an event.

“The truth is that a lot of what they suggested, we have already done,” Gordon said at the June 3 meeting. “Once handcuffs are on these people, they’re up and moving. We handcuff them, move them to the police vehicle and out of the crisis site. If there is an injury, the EMS is immediately contacted.”

While Gordon said that his department follows proper police protocol and hiring practices, it is crucial for the entire industry to examine how it applies that protocol, and the officers who apply that protocol. A major violation of several police departments, he said, stems from police departments not addressing the elephant in the room: post traumatic stress.

“We don’t actually look at our profession and see what it is doing to our members,” he said. “You have to look at the process. Why is [Chauvin] being thrown back into the mix? What shocks me to the core is the one picture where he is kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck and looking at the camera, and there is zero emotion. His hands are in his pocket, and he is slowly choking the life out of Mr. Floyd. How does that happen? You have to see that way before the incident.

“I will tell you as a previous police officer for a busy city police department, there are may times that [police officers] feel like they are on an island,” Gordon continued. “No one supports them, the public hates them. The administration hates them. They have no one but themselves. In this particular case, that’s the conversation we need to have so that it doesn’t happen again. If we’re exposing these people to trauma after trauma after trauma, patting them on the head and telling them to go back into it, and something like this happens, we can’t just stop looking at just Derek Chauvin.”

Police defunding?

At the outset of the massive protests that followed Floyd’s murder, the slogans both spoken and carried echoed a message of unity, solidarity and an immediate end to racial profiling and discrimination against African Americans by white police officers. While the ferocity of the sentiment has shown no signs of slowing down, a new sentiment has wound its way into the conversation: the defunding of police departments. 

While some of those in favor of police defunding believe it is a proper retaliatory measure for the killings of black men and women by white police officers, other supporters say that it will lead to a complete and much-needed overhaul of the justice system and put an end to aggressive policing, especially in cities and towns where there is a concentrated percentage of African Americans. They money that would normally be used to fund police operations, they argue, should be spent on education, job creation and housing, as well as health intervention, drug rehabilitation and family counseling.

Those who are opposed to defunding believe that it could lead to skyrocketing crime, and a lack of authority and accountability to the law – all of which may greatly compromise the importance of keeping communities safe.

While he hears the justification from both sides, Holdsworth said he does not favor the defunding of police, but agrees that the industry’s failure to improve how it operates is in crucial need of a severe overhaul. 

“I don’t say that because of self-preservation,” he said. “I just know how important good policing is, and the areas that it improves across the county, looking past these horrible incidents.

“It’s not about defunding,” Holdsworth added. “It’s about establishing good reform. How do we make changes to a system that we know has issues? There also needs to be more accountability for policing out there. I don’t think these incidents represent the other 99 percent of law enforcement, but that one percent is growing.”

To Holdsworth, Simpson and Gordon, the steps that still need to be taken by law enforcement are long and tenuous, but are best found not just by revamping policies, procedures and hiring practices, but by strengthening how police departments engage in the communities they serve.

On June 1, Simpson asked department Chaplain Annalie Korengel – who is also the chaplain for the Kennett Square Police and the Kennett Township Police --  to steer a committee of elected officials, law enforcement officers and local stakeholders to begin open discussions with the public about how the police can do their jobs better.

“It will be communication not just to hear, but to possibly and potentially influence how we do our jobs,” Simpson said. “We are committed to the sincerity behind this work.

“I am never one to kneel for injustice,” Simpson said. “Rather, I am going to stand to support those who are here at this protest. I assure you that our actions will be ferreted out in the days to come. We’re not just words. We are about actions.”

“We routinely partner with our residents, our neighbors, and all of our visitors to collectively work together to improve the quality of life for all of us,” Gordon said. “If you look at the diversity within our own police department, you will see that well before the social ills that we all face, that we, the Kennett Township Police Department, have endeavored to mirror the community we work in.

“[The murder of George Floyd] was disgrace upon our profession, but does it make us better? Yes,” Gordon added. “Does it paint us with the same brush? Maybe to the people who don’t know us, but to the people who do, we’ve already built those bridges. They know we’re not that guy.”

In advance of the June 1 Black Lives Matter event in Kennett Square that drew 500 protestors, Kennett Square Police Officer J.D. Boyer asked Holdsworth if he could gain permission to kneel at the intersection of State and Union streets, and join with others in a moment of silence. Holdsworth not only gave Boyer permission to do so, but joined him, as did Korengel and Corporal Kenneth Rongaus.

“What we wanted to do was to truly show our community that we are standing in solidarity with them, to say to them that we believe that there was something horribly wrong that took place. It was special to be able to share that with the community, to say, ‘We are the community. We are Kennett Square.’

“As things change, as we see the procedures need to be tweaked, we do so in order to offer the most professional policing as possible,” Holdsworth added. “We’re always trying to better ourselves. We wholeheartedly realize that there is a problem with policing in America, and although we’ll continue to say that it’s probably a very small fraction, it’s there, and none of it is acceptable.

“We are willing to be a part of the solution, and we strive to be a part of that every day as we work with the community and continue to train our officers, in an effort to upgrade our commitment to this community on a daily basis.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].