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'We Recognize That There's A Need To Change': What Police Think About Civil Unrest


America's police officers are at the center of a national storm. They are hearing the rage over what happened to George Floyd at the same time they've been tasked with containing the violence. Some have been accused of cracking down on legitimate protesters, others criticized for being too permissive toward vandals and looters. To give us a sense of what the nation's police officers are thinking right now, we're joined by NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste, who's been talking with his police sources today.

Hi, Martin.


SHAPIRO: First, just give us a sense of the mood of the police officers that you're talking to.

KASTE: The mood is gloomy. It's tense. And I think it's fair to say that there is some fear I've heard in some of the things I've heard from especially officers who are kind of on the front lines of crowd control and scenes we've seen so much in the last couple of days. There's also kind of a sense of frustration for a lot of officers when they hear what they think - what they perceive to be sort of a note of understanding or the sense that it's acceptable that this kind of violence, this looting and arson accompany these protests - they find that kind of frustrating.

SHAPIRO: Are they angry just about the violence or also about the public response condemning the Minneapolis police involved in the death of George Floyd or, in some cases, about the actions of police officers that, you know, wear the badge as well?

KASTE: Well, this anger I was talking about is about this violence. To be clear, when it comes to Minneapolis cops in that video, the police - it's actually struck me how unanimous they've been in condemning - from early on, from last week - condemning what they saw in that video. I've heard cops just going off on those Minneapolis police officers, saying they've made it so much harder to be a police officer in this country now.

And you know, I was talking about this yesterday with Robert Hollis, who's a police patrol commander in Kent, Wash., which is a very diverse suburb of Seattle. And he told me that as a black man, he felt sick to his stomach watching that video of Floyd. But he also saw some reason for hope in this sort of widespread condemnation he was hearing from this world of policing.

ROBERT HOLLIS: Numerous unions, numerous police chiefs are coming out and saying, this is not the type of officer that we want - 'cause I guarantee you five years ago, it would be more of a, let's wait and see what's going on. Let's hold off, wait for all the facts to come out. But this time, it was outcry from the get-go.

SHAPIRO: And as an African American police officer, what is his take on the protesters' accusation that the police are inherently racist, that there are unfortunate trends and, you know, that it run through the institution?

KASTE: Well, I mean, he took a nuanced approach to this when we were talking about it. You know, he said that policing, by its very nature, changes slowly. But he thinks, also, that in his 19 years as an officer, he has seen substantive improvements. One example he gave is his own department. A few years ago, they still permitted that knee-to-the-neck technique that we saw used on George Floyd. But a few years ago, a trainer said, this is dangerous. And the department banned it.

And he also thinks the implicit bias training of just the last few years, the last five or six years has kind of shaped the views of the new generation of leaders inside of police departments, which may be behind this sort of unanimous condemnation we're hearing. But he still said that he understands that when people see something like this case with George Floyd, that they say, if one of you did it, you all did it.

HOLLIS: I don't blame them. At the same time, I still would say to those community members, you need to keep working with us, and we want to keep - continue to keep working with you because we recognize that there's a need to change. We're doing our best to try and make those changes.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, Martin, as somebody who's been covering these issues since before Ferguson, do you see the same kind of gradual improvement that Commander Hollis is describing?

KASTE: There have definitely been policy changes. There's been sort of a change in attitude in departments on how use of force is used and documented. But you know, policing is a patchwork in this country. There's some talk now about changing the rules under which police can be sued.


KASTE: That's something that Congress is now maybe picking up the next few days. That might be something that unites left and right.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Martin Kaste, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.