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Verdict in George Floyd case reignites memories

Many of us were riveted on the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted Tuesday on two second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

The killing received international attention and ignited numerous Black Lives Matter protests in many urban areas across the country last summer. Some believe it was a tipping point that will lead to a reassessment about how police work is handled in our country. Some of this is already underway.

As a journalist who has had a long and at times contentious relationship with local and state police, I was curious about how they felt about all of this. During my 60 years in journalism, I have cultivated a number of police sources, many of whom I respect and hold to be invaluable public servants.

Each of us has impressions and feelings about law enforcement officers, and certainly there is abundant research that shows that our perceptions of police are largely based on our own experiences with them.

For those without any personal experiences, they may be influenced by what they read, hear or see in the media, from anecdotes by those who have had positive or negative encounters and from other sources.

During tumultuous periods of protests touched off by the deaths of African American suspects at the hands of white police officers, we try to temper the backlash against the police with our desire to support the concept of policing and the vast majority of officers who do their jobs effectively day in and day out.

In our area, there has been just one recent incident where a white police officer has shot and killed a Hispanic man in an encounter in Lehigh County near Dorney Park. Former South Whitehall Township police officer Jonathan Roselle of Parryville was found not guilty of voluntary manslaughter last year in the 2018 killing of Joseph Santos.

In addition in our area, we have been largely isolated from some of the extremes of protests that occurred last summer as nearby as Philadelphia. In fact, Gov. Tom Wolf activated National Guard troops last week in advance of the verdict in the Chauvin case, because there was no doubt that if the verdict had not turned out the way it did, the streets of Philadelphia would probably have been awash again in violence and destruction.

We had protests in our area last summer, including in the Lehigh Valley area, and Carbon and Monroe counties, but despite some intemperate name-calling and posturing, they were almost 100% peaceful. Many community leaders pointed to effective communication between the opposing sides and a low but effective police presence for keeping a lid on the protests.

There is almost unanimous agreement among the dozen or so police officers whom I spoke to in Carbon, Northampton and Lehigh counties after the Chauvin verdict that the jury got it right.

Most of these officers feel that Chauvin’s actions were unwarranted and that what he did has made their jobs much more difficult. They believe it has made citizens unnecessarily wary of police encounters and making an already difficult job that much more difficult.

Being a white, middle class professional, I can’t pretend to know how African Americans feel in their interactions with police. Several black parents tell me pointedly how fearful they are that their teenage children, especially boys, might wind up dead on the streets of one of our communities because of a police encounter gone wrong.

On one level, this seems preposterous based on my personal experiences, but given the numerous incidents where white officers have killed black youths, and the fact that these incidents are continuing even after the Chauvin verdict gives me a different, more realistic perspective about their concerns.

A retired state police officer with whom I worked on the infamous Marshalls Creek (Monroe County) explosion in 1964, which killed six, including three volunteer firefighters, injured 13 and left more than $1 million in property damage, put the situation into focus for me.

A nearly 30-year veteran of the force before retirement, he said that in a changing world, all facets of society - including police and journalists - need to change their way of thinking. He said the amount of racism among state police officers a half-decade ago was beyond stunning. While the situation has improved, he said, there is still a long way to go.

I asked him what he thought the qualities of an excellent police officer are. He rattled them off immediately, so I don’t know whether these are original to him or whether it is a list he cobbled together along the way.

He said he or she must have outstanding communication skills, be compassionate and empathetic, be a person who has the utmost integrity and whose word is his or her bond. Ideally, he or she should have strong negotiating skills, should believe in fairness, equality and respect and should be a person who is an eager learner, one who has mental agility and the ability to solve problems quickly and accurately.

Sounds like a great job description to me.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.