Northeastern University Police Chief Michael A. Davis brings a deep reservoir of experience and professional perspective to Tuesday’s murder conviction of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin and the racial reckoning rippling through law enforcement. Tapped by the Department of Justice to review police practices after officer-involved fatal shootings in Ferguson and Cleveland, Davis has also helped craft police reforms. Davis began his career as a police officer in the Third Precinct in Minneapolis, the same precinct Chauvin worked, putting in 16 years at the department before becoming chief of police in Brooklyn Park, Minn., less than two miles from another incident where police killed an unarmed Black man in Brooklyn Center. He sat down with News@Northeastern to discuss his reaction to the verdict and talk about where policing should go from here.
What has been your personal reaction to the George Floyd murder?
As a professional it breaks my heart. I spent the most time as a police officer working out of the third precinct in Minneapolis. That’s where I learned to become a police officer, and I spent a lot of my career, the latter part of my 16 years there, trying to better the organization — creating use of force review processes, creating internal affairs investigations.
I put a lot of myself into that work and worked with others who did the same. So for Minneapolis to be the epicenter of where all of this is happening is troubling. But I also will say that there’s a lot of hope and possibility that springs from this. It’s my hope now that Minneapolis will serve as the model for a repositioning of police in society and what it means to come out of this level of complete chaos. What can be rebuilt from this is really where my hope lies.
How did we get here? What are the factors in policing that might explain why we keep seeing unarmed Black men die at the hands of police?
Policing is one of those complex institutions in this country that suffers from a couple of elements that haven’t changed for a long time. The first element is that there is an over reliance on policing, because they’re the only the ones that make house calls to solve every aspect of community dysfunction.
The second is the toolbox, the limited toolbox that policing has historically brought to the table.
The last major element that hasn’t changed over generations is the internal culture of policing and the pernicious impact it has on the individual officer. You can have an officer that aspires to do great work that comes in to an organization, and the question is, what does that organization value?
If you conflate that with the trauma of going in to a lot of homicide scenes, of seeing the worst elements of humanity in our society—you can create very cynical, very binary, human beings that are not really on a continuum of capability to deal with what they see.
Where should police reform go from here?
There’s a number of things that can be done. The issue of the day is accountability, I understand that, but accountability without providing substantive, philosophical-based reform measures with acumen and resources, without the real work that can be done because of this – we’re going to be in the same spot we are now.
Sometimes it’s not a lack of will. It really is a lack of knowledge. If all I see is a wrench and a hammer, I’d have to understand what other tools could possibly exist, but I can’t imagine that they exist. This is all you’ve worked with—so you’re going to use a wrench and the hammer. You can [maybe] not pound as hard, but you’re still using a hammer. I see sometimes [police] executives that are just oozing with sincerity, but they’re dealing with violence in the moment, and they’re like, ‘All we can do is what we know how to do right now.’ The most troubling thing is that we can actually change all that.
Attempts to reform law enforcement often emphasize community policing. What do you think of those reform efforts?
The notion of community policing got lost and so that term, to me, needs to go. It’s not about community policing, it’s about community building.
You can sit down with police chiefs who’ll talk about working with the community, they’ll talk about building trust and these very platitudinous things, but they’re not really executing. They don’t really see the complexity of what it means to execute, to create the conditions for that to happen.
To me it is beyond building trust. If we simply say it’s to build trust, that’s a low bar. It’s difficult, but it’s still a low bar. You shoot over that. You say you want to be the model of societal interaction, in value, in behavior and in engendering the best out of every single human being. That’s what we have to aspire to, but we first have to understand what that means inside organizations and community, and then create the conditions for that to happen.
Do you think the outcome of the Chauvin trial may make officers pause before they use force?
The most constructive thing that can happen is that, at a minimum, we pause and really do the calculation about what force is reasonable given the danger and what would be the consequence of that? But even before that, what action do I need to take?
In the George Floyd case, the question wasn’t about force — the excessive use of force was patently obvious. The question is, why was George Floyd arrested in the first place? The question for a police officer being called to an incident like that should be, where’s the opportunity to help him? What are we really trying to accomplish? The question is, given the full context of the situation, what is the best possible option? Let’s have a conversation before we act like we’re in a hurry to throw someone in handcuffs and drag them off to get to the next call. We shouldn’t be in a hurry when there’s opportunities to do things that yield the optimal outcomes. So to me, it’s about this whole notion of modeling the behavior [among officers] that society should follow.
The philosophical orientation of the department is going to determine whether there’s simply a pause at the moment I’m using force or about to use force, or whether it’s more deeply introspective about how we actually approach these calls, and what are the outcomes we’re looking for, and what police actions actually advance public safety. That’s the question.
Is arresting George Floyd with this potentially counterfeit $20 bill going to advance public safety? Under the Hippocratic Oath, first do no harm. So let’s try not to do any harm to him. Because whether we arrest him or not, it’s not going to make a huge dent in the public safety issues of the city. So what’s the best possible outcome for this individual? What is in the best interest of this individual?
How will the verdict affect the recruitment of police officers?
It raises the question of who are you attracting and why. How are you casting the job? And then, what are you requiring of them once you’re inside the organization? What kind of growth, what kind of development? I think you have to redefine what kind of talent fits. I think if you recast this job in the way that it’s meant to be the models of society and you say, ‘You will be a better person on the other side because of your experience as a police officer. We want you to become better as you execute the job and commit to the job.’ We provide you with the tools to do that and it becomes a tremendous opportunity to contribute to society.
We have to force into the profession the acumen and ability to think at a higher level of sophistication and they then will think for city governments that can’t keep up. We have to bank on the institutions and the professionals within them to raise the level—so when they look to the police chief, or the commissioner or the superintendent, they’re getting a sufficient and sophisticated enough view to make the right decisions about investment, to make the right decisions about community development, to make the right decisions about how they interact with the community.