Even before the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin began, Hermitage police Chief Eric Jewell realized that he had to do something to improve relationships between police and the community.
Toward that end, he assigned Officer Sam Staples as a full-time community outreach officer.
As the trial reached the end of its first week, Jewell said he wants to see the community — police and residents alike — come together and positively move forward.
“The Derek Chauvin incident just rocked the country and it set us back quite a ways,” Jewell said. “I want to build back what was lost and build back better. Through positive relationships between police and the community, we can achieve that.”
Friday marked the end of an emotional week of testimony and presentation of video evidence in the trial of Chauvin, accused of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd.
During testimony, witnesses said and video showed Chauvin drove his knee into Floyd’s neck and pinned the Black man to the ground for more than 9 minutes. The incident sparked widespread protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and against police brutality.
Video presented in the testimony appeared to show a frightened Floyd during the confrontation.
When asked about the role de-escalation plays in a situation such as the incident in which Chauvin killed Floyd, Jewell said policies and protocols are tailored differently in every organization.
He said police officers are trained to look for medical issues stemming from positional asphyxia, which may occur as a result of a technique known as “prone restraint” — used by police, corrections, military or health care staff — where a person is restrained face down, as Floyd was.
“We’re cognizant of the fact that you don’t want to be on somebody’s body any longer than you have to,” Jewell said. “And you want to move somebody’s body to a rescue position.”
Mercer County Sheriff Bruce Rosa said in more than 40 years in law enforcement, including a stint as Sharpsville’s police chief, he was taught to de-escalate situations when there is no longer a need to use force.
“At the point when someone is not resisting, then you de-escalate,” Rosa said. “Just because somebody is cuffed, doesn’t mean they can’t harm themselves or someone else.”
Jewell and Rosa said they have their guard up against anything happening after the conclusion of the trial, whether Chauvin is acquitted or convicted.
“We’re going to be prepared either way,” Rosa said. “I’m not anticipating anything at this point, but I’m prepared if it does. Any time you get up and put on a badge, you prepare for that.”
While Jewell and Rosa represent policing's past and recent present, criminal justice professors training future law enforcement officers had their own opinions of the trial.
Allan M. Hunchuk, Ph.D., department chair and professor of Thiel College’s department of Sociology and Criminal Justice Studies, said witness testimony has been fascinating.
“A lot of them are in distress,” Hunchuck said of the witnesses.
Hunchuk said he thinks the defense is trying to build its case through its questioning of prosecution witnesses. But he believes it is going to be hard for the defense to rebut the compelling video images.
“It really looks like the guy is guilty,” Hunchuk said. “You have to go through the trial, though. You have to give him his day in court.”
Hunchak strongly believes that there is a need for social workers, trained in de-escalation techniques, to cooperate with police.
“A knee on the back of the neck for nine minutes just seems unconscionable,” Hunchuk said.
If police could have waited and called a social worker to talk to Floyd, Hunchuk said the situation could have turned out differently.
“The Floyd case highlights things that are wrong with our system,” Hunchuk said. “More critical thinking skills would be helpful and the more training, the better."
As an assistant professor of criminal justice at Penn State Shenango, Travis Milburn has been discussing the case with his students.
“I think thus far for me a lot of the testimony has really brought back all the feelings when the case initially happened last May,” Milburn said. “Some of the testimony and the emotionality, it’s been heart-wrenching. It’s been pretty raw. Difficult, at times, to watch.”
He is not so quick to give his opinion on Chavin’s guilt or innocence and said that Chauvin may very well be acquitted.
“Conviction of police is more the exception than the rule,” Milburn said. “I’m cautious to think a conviction is certain, but I think the testimony at this point has played well for the prosecution.”
Milburn said more training for police, is not necessarily the answer to ending such events that led to Floyd’s death.
“It’s more complicated than updating the training manual or upping the de-escalation,” Milburn said. “I see these incidents will continue. Surface-level types of suggestions will likely not prevent these sorts of tragedies from happening.”
Policing in the U.S. is very different among states and even municipalities, Milburn said.
“As much as we can think about policing, it’s a piecemeal project,” Milburn said. “Conviction in Minnesota does not equate to a change we see in Pa. or locally.”
Locally, Jewell and Rosa are reserving their opinions of Chauvin's guilt or innocence until the trial ends.
“A trial is about the totality of the evidence,” Jewell said. “I don’t think it would be fair to the prosecution of the defense, or to make an assumption at this point.”
“I want to see everything in its totality,” Rosa said. “If I’m going to do an investigation, I want to see everything.”
Jewell said he hopes jurors feel the same way, and listen to and consider all the facts.
“It’s highly emotional. It’s an emotionally-charged trial,” Jewell said. “A man died and it’s sad that he died.”
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