The nation has been rocked by protests in the two weeks since Minneapolis father George Floyd died after an officer, responding to a call that he may have used a counterfeit $20 at a corner store, held him down on the ground with a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes while he yelled that he couldn’t breathe. Demonstrators demanded the officers involved be arrested and charged with murder and have called for an end of continued excessive use-of-force by police in the Black community in general. In Sacramento, the local chapter of Black Lives Matter marched with thousands — still raw from the 2018 police killing of Sacramento’s Stephon Clark — to a police substation on Franklin Boulevard. Peaceful demonstrations at the State Capitol, at Cesar Chavez Park and the nearby County Jail turned anything but. Rubber bullets by police pierced flesh as flash bombs and teargas filled the air. The National Guard was called in and the City enacted a nightly curfew. When the sun rose, downtown businesses had been looted and buildings carried graffiti shouts of “F*** The Police.”
As part of its continued coverage, The OBSERVER spoke with Sacramento’s first Black police chief, Daniel Hahn, this week about his response to the protests, his thoughts on George Floyd’s death at the hands of law enforcement and the reform that people in Sacramento and across the country say they won’t stop until they get.
Q: There have been protests in the past, what is different about this one? Why do you think people have repeatedly returned to the streets?
A: In Sacramento, we have seen protests of similar nature in the sense that it was a Black man who died in interaction with the police department. Oftentimes we look at them like the issue. In the Minnesota one, as horrific as that is to watch, I still think even that was really like a match that you would light your kindling or your wood you have stacked. The kindling is our everyday interaction between the community and law enforcement. That’s really the issue. The incident itself is reprehensible and the officer, you can’t figure out why one human being would do that to another.
It strikes home for a couple of reasons. Obviously, George Floyd was a Black man and I’m a Black man, but also the man that’s doing it to him wears a uniform similar to mine; not the same department, but still represents the same thing our uniform represents in terms of law enforcement and supposed to be serving this community and supposed to be acting appropriately. All the protests, not just this one, but all the protests that have happened over the years after different incidents are just an example of how frustrated members of the community are, how angry they are, how frustrated they feel that there’s no change, it’s the same-old, same-old and we’re back in this spot that we were just in the year before or two years before. (People are saying) what else do we need to do to not see this happen?
Q: What’s your perspective on the local protests?
A: The anger and also frustration in our city, we saw that a lot. Night would fall and you’d go from thousands of people in the protests that would be walking around the streets very angry, very frustrated but not doing widespread violence. They were throwing water bottles at officers, but they weren’t breaking into buildings, they were throwing rocks and bricks and things like that at officers. They weren’t looting. But as night fell, a lot of those folks would leave and then another group would come in and I don’t necessarily think that that group was wholly a part of that frustrated group.
Their goal was to tear up our city and to commit violence and they threw rocks and bricks at officers, fireballs at officers, and tried to pull officers into the crowd. You saw that same thing more successful in other cities across the country where buildings were burning and officers literally got pulled into the crowd and assaulted.
Q: What instructions did you give officers and leaders in the department prior to the protests?
A: Generally we have a big briefing at the beginning of the day and then officers split into their respective areas of the city where we thought there could be challenges. I always end every one of my talks with ‘We are Sacramento’ and how that should mean something to us. We protect people’s rights to protest and we value people’s rights to protest. So in other words don’t let what happened last night when you got hit upside the head with a brick cloud what happens with people today. Yeah, people are yelling and they’re angry and it’s tough to withstand all that, but they’re literally exercising their rights and they’re not the ones that are trying to burn buildings down. After a couple of days it gets rough. We’re trying to keep their spirits up and remind them we’re SacPD, we protect people’s rights but at the same time we have to keep each other safe.
It’s challenging to let some things go because the people are exercising their rights; yeah they are violating some laws like blocking the streets and things, but we let some of that go so people can express their opinion, but then there’s a time when it goes over that line and now people people’s lives are in danger and they are trying to light up numerous buildings, they just weren’t successful. Either the sprinkler systems will put it out or an officer will get there in time to put it out and a few times we were able to get the fire department in to the building to get the fire out. Some of these buildings were storefronts on the bottom with residents on the second floor, so there were people in there, so that could have gone really bad.
Q: You’ve commended your officers for ‘staying strong’ in the face of protests, while having things thrown at them and being spit upon, especially during times of COVID-19. Some may be moved to react toward demonstrators. Do you trust that your officers will continue to ‘stay strong?’
A: Yes, absolutely. It’s human nature not to want somebody in your face flipping you off. That’s not natural for somebody to withstand that, but we’ve gone through this before and we have to understand that there’s some people that are really upset right now and are really frustrated and so our job is not to respond to that. It’s kind of similar to the incident in Minnesota where part of what is so appalling about that is the length of time, almost nine minutes, where other officers just stood there. It’s like man, if you had just pulled the officer off Mr. Floyd he’d probably still be alive. In our protests, we are each other’s keepers. The officer standing next to you, if you see that he’s just breaking down, he’s had about all he can take and he’s starting to either get frustrated to the point he can lash out or he’s just breaking down, then the the officer next to him’s job is to hold him up and keep him from lashing out or get him off of the line in a ‘he’s about to collapse kind thing.’ I would imagine that happened a lot, not just with these protests, but in previous protests.
Q: Do you understand why people have taken to the streets?
A: Sometimes the anger is so high, a lot of times for the good reasons. What I think it is, is what we’ve been dealing with since the inception of this country — and that’s racism and differences. For me that’s the foundation of all of this.
Q: You mention differences. Complaints of excessive use-of-force often come with the question of why police response is so different when those involved are Black. There have been incidents where White individuals have drawn guns on police officers and made it to jail safely, but Blacks selling CDs or cigarettes haven’t been as lucky. Why is response so different?
A: We should always look at laws. We should always look at training and we should always look at policies. I absolutely believe that. We started our own Research and Development Division in this department for that very reason. That’s all they do is forward looking, is there a new training? Is there any new policies, is there any of that? But at the same time, if you have either just a corrupt person that’s wearing a uniform or maybe someone who’s racist or has extreme biases, that law is not going to make any difference. That’s why we concentrate so much in SacPD on those things. We have implicit bias training courses. We have a bunch of relational policing where we partner an officer with a community member and then that community member goes out with an officer for a day. It’s the same as teaching the officer the law, teaching the officer the rules of arrest and all that. We are also expanding their experiences, because if they’re not from Meadowview or a community similar to Meadowview, and they’re going to have to work in Meadowview if they work for SacPD probably. We have a diverse city, so they’re not going to be able to just work in one community that might be similar to the one where they grew up, so it’s our responsibility to say, ‘how do we help empower them to better be able to fully serve communities?’ Because now they kind of know the hopes and dreams and the challenges of that community, what the people in that community want and that sort of thing. Yes, the culture may be different than theirs and why would they understand if they have never been exposed to it? That’s a lot of what we do.
Q: Was the carotid artery restraint hold that killed George Floyd something that was used here in Sacramento to restrain people?
A: Up until this last weekend, it was something that we trained and was within our policy that under select, extreme circumstances they could use. But I banned it, so it is no longer part of what officers can use.
Q: What changed?
A: Well one, the governor announced that he told POST (Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training), which is the governing body over California, over law enforcement, that they were going to take that out of their training and their training is a lot of what we use in the academy. And then also there’s some bills in the state legislature to ban it throughout California. It’s something that’s seldom used, but I think it would still be a useful tool if we allowed it, because in close contact an officer has limited things he can use and we take all of those things away and all he has is his gun, but because of what the governor announced and because the sentiment of our community, it was not worth it.
Q: It’s hard to change overnight. Say an officer gets into a situation, will he remember that he can’t use this hold anymore?
A: Yes. We’ve had to put out emergency orders before every once in awhile. It was an order that went out to every one of our officers that said that’s not authorized anymore and is actually already changed in our policy. Yesterday we were able to change our actual policy and delete it out of our books.
Q: Are videos like the ones that show the deaths of George Floyd and here locally, Stephon Clark, used as teaching tools for what not to do?
A: The week the George Floyd incident came out, I sent the article that contained the video to our academy staff for that very reason. We also use our own body cameras for training, so it’s not just when we have a shooting, then we take a look at the body cameras. The kind of beauty of having body cameras is pretty much everything an officer does is on camera because we all wear them on our shirts or on our belts and so we can use our own body cameras for training. Say an officer is getting some rudeness complaints, well a supervisor can look at the body camera and randomly pick body cam footage from that officer’s calls over the last week and see for themselves ‘what’s going on here?’ And the academy can use both good examples and examples that can be much better, in training and it can also be used as every officer has to go through 40 hours of refresher training.
Q: Often we see videos where Black people have died from police-involved actions and it seems like those in law enforcement see something vastly different than what the Black community sees. How do we jibe those two things?
A: It’s even bigger than that. We as a country see things different. With any one of those videos you can see the country pretty much divided by 50 percent. It’s the exact same video, nobody’s watching anything different, the exact same video, and half the country will say ‘that’s absolutely wrong’ and the other half of the country goes, ‘that’s absolutely right.’ And I think you’re never going to get 100 percent agreement on anything. That’s just the way life is, but when it’s so divided like that, it’s an example of how biases and differences come into play. Our experiences form how we see things, so if there’s that big of a divide in our country, then we have to know that’s going to be in our police departments too.
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Staff Writer
EDITOR’S NOTE: See next week’s issue of The OBSERVER for the second part of Senior Staff Writer Genoa Barrow’s discussion with Chief Daniel Hahn, as he speaks about policing in the Black community and being a Black officer in times of unrest.