By Genoa Barrow | Observer Senior Staff Writer
Many have been on edge as George Floyd’s last moments were played out in grave detail in a Minneapolis courtroom over the past three weeks. Meanwhile, police-involved shooting deaths have added the names Duante Wright, Adam Toledo, Anthony J. Thompson Jr., and Ma’Khia Bryant to Floyd’s. All have added to a growing sense of unease.
As the Derek Chauvin trial wound down, Sacramento joined cities across the country in bracing for the worst. Among those on high alert was Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn. The Sacramento OBSERVER spoke with the city’s chief, who is Black, on Tuesday evening. Chief Hahn reflected on the Chauvin case, its impact and how law enforcement fares overall in the court of public opinion.
Chauvin sat in the defendant’s seat but to many, law enforcement itself was on trial. Historically, White officers are not charged, let alone convicted, in on-duty shootings in which a Black person died as a result. One California exception was Johannes Mehserle, the former transit officer convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 death of Oscar Grant.
Chief Hahn said he for the most part didn’t watch the trial.
“But I definitely watched the (George Floyd) video for like, a year now,” he said.
“What I saw and what I said at the time is, that’s not what we want officers to do. The callousness on (Chauvin’s) face and just sitting there for nine minutes — it’s basically disgusting that he represents what I represent. He doesn’t wear the exact same uniform I do, but it’s a police officer uniform — something I’ve given 34 years of my life to and (Chauvin’s callousness is) just unacceptable.
“I think it’s good in the sense that he, through a proper system, was held accountable for his actions.”
Finding Chauvin guilty, Chief Hahn said, is a step in the right direction, but far from a solution.
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“To say that this is the start of some totally new thing and this is victory in the grand scheme of equity and ensuring that all people are able to live up to what is written in our Constitution, I think that’s going a little far,” he said.
“This is one instance, with one suspect that used to be an officer. Obviously George Floyd, who lost his life, and his family now, have to deal with it, but we have issues that we have to deal with that don’t solely pertain to accountability. This one person was held accountable, absolutely, but … in our country, we have always had a problem with race. We’ve always had a problem with difference. We’ve always had a problem in dealing with it. We don’t want to admit it, we aren’t taught it. We don’t learn it.
“In any country, and I’m talking about ours, where you can be a group like the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers, and be listed as a hate group and break into the (U.S.) Capitol, and as a result of that action, people die, and at least some of the people that broke into the Capitol appear to definitely have had the intention of killing people and hanging elected officials, and a significant portion of people in our country call those folks patriots. And on the other hand, you can have somebody like Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem at a National Football League game, and we call him unpatriotic, and we say things like, ‘Well, if he doesn’t like it the way it is in this country, he can get out.’ And then he can never find a job.
“We call the people that kill people and break into the Capitol patriots. On the other hand, when we have a young 18-year-old kill two other young people in our mall, all African American, we call them savages,” Chief Hahn said, referring to Damario Beck, who was arrested and accused of killing brothers Dewayne James Jr., 19, and Sa’Quan Reed-James, 17, at the Arden Fair Mall in November.
“Until we deal with that, we’re going to continue to have these problems. We’re going to continue to have these problems as long as we say that we’re only focusing on law enforcement,” he said.
The chief points to comments made by Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday.
“She mentioned much more than law enforcement,” he said. “She mentioned education and I think in that regard, she’s spot-on. When we look at our communities that suffer the most from crime, lack of equal education, lack of equal opportunity, those are our most impoverished neighborhoods. They’ve done study after study … and yet those neighborhoods stay like that. They are all interrelated, so where do we put most of our cops? In those neighborhoods, because that’s where most of the calls for service are.”
Law enforcement officers have a “tremendous amount of power” and efforts are being made, Chief Hahn assures, to see not only that “bad apples” aren’t abusing that power, but that root causes are addressed.
“It’s not that I don’t think we should ensure systems of accountability are there, I do think we should have accountability, but we focus too much on accountability and the end result.”
Chief Hahn says a class he teaches, “History, Bias & How We Got Here,” is having an impact, as is a Walk in My Shoes program that connects members of the department with area residents. The goal, he says, is to have officers doing the best job they can. He points to the importance of having implicit bias training at the academy level and utilizing technological advancements to monitor behavior. Partnerships that Hahn has instituted with the Center for Policing Equity and Stanford and Washington State universities also are enhancing the potential to improve.
“Anybody that says there’s no racism and racial issues in law enforcement in our history, is just either lying, or is naive,” Hahn said. “Instead of acting like it hasn’t existed and there isn’t a reason why people don’t trust law enforcement, we need to own up to it.”
Moving past distrust, he says, will come with acknowledgement of past mistakes, not making new ones, and through everyday interactions in communities and when people see officers genuinely there to help, not harm.
The guilt isn’t law enforcement’s alone, Chief Hahn says.
“If we said we had to tear down law enforcement because there’s racism in our history, and the only way to solve something that had racism in its history is tearing it down, we’d have to tear our entire country down.”