Being Black, Wearing Blue: NYPD Cops Speak on Impact of Floyd's Killing a Year Later

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In the year after the police killing of George Floyd, there have been calls for changes in legislation and accountability for cops over use of force. NBC New York spoke with Black New York City police officers with a combined 50 years of experience about the impact Floyd's death and subsequent protests as had on them.

For Lt. Sharisse Sanders, Officer Brightman and Captain Shepard, the impact of Floyd's murder was nearly instantaneous and nothing has prepared them for the internal struggle of being a Black police officer amid racial justice reckoning across the U.S.

After 46-year-old Floyd, who was Black, died on Memorial Day 2020 when then-Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck, pinning him to the ground for about 9 1/2 minutes, Lt. Sanders said she was shock and angry because she said didn't understand how a human being could do that to another human being.

"But I was angry that he was wearing a police uniform while doing it because it was gonna make my job and the jobs of police officers across the country a whole lot harder," Sanders said.

Chauvin, who is white, was convicted last month of murder and three other fired officers still face trial. Though for an entire year before justice was served, protesters took to the streets in New York City to call for accountability. While the majority of the gatherings were peaceful, some violence erupted between cops and demonstrators, and several incidents of excessive force by the NYPD prompted an investigation from the state's attorney general.

"We were right in the forefront of all the protests," said Officer Douglas Brightman who says he got hurt at one of the rallies. "You take a lot of backlash for being an African American officer, but you know it comes with the territory."

"In the wake of what happened, I can't say that I condone it but I still understand the anger behind some of the protests that were going on," Brightman added.

During those protests, Cpt. Tarik Shepard also said he felt attacked for being a Black cop but he says the people in his community still appreciate the police presence.

"The [protesters] I dealt with weren’t even from these neighborhoods," he said. "When I come out here, I get a lot of love from everyone that’s from here. Because while we all collectively were upset by what happened, we all know what it’s like out here when you don’t have the police. There’s not a person out here who would tell you they don’t want police out here."

While Shepard spoke to News 4, two women in the neighborhood interrupted the interview to offer the officers some advice. One said that if NYPD officers were friendlier, people would be more accepting of them.

The other woman said, "you've gotta look at it all the way around. Thank God, I've had good experiences, but I did have some bad ones."

What could have been a testy exchange became a conversation between people of the same community. The captain said he agrees that officers could show more of their citizen side and say hi to a kid, adding that we've got to get rid of racism and rudeness in every profession.

"The reality is this, you cannot prevent the next tragedy, the next incident that's going to polarize the nation from happening. The only thing we can focus on is accountability," Shepard said. "We hire from the human race. People are going to do stupid things. There's going to be some racism in every profession there's going to be some knuckleheads in every profession."

However, activists believe there are measures that can be taken to prevent more police killings. Parents and siblings of Black men killed by police, including family members of Eric Garner, urged people during a discussion in Minneapolis to join them in pursuing legal changes they say can make more deaths less likely in the future. 

The panel, convened Monday in Minneapolis and organized by the George Floyd Memorial Foundation founded by Floyd’s sister Bridgett and moderated by prominent Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, was part of a series of events marking the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death on May 25.

Gwen Carr, Garner's mother, described her meetings and conversations with lawmakers over six years to get legislation passed that bans the use of chokeholds, among other measures, after an officer used the technique in the death of her son. One instance involved Carr and other mothers in New York bringing makeshift coffins to the state Capitol in 2015 after failed attempts to meet with Gov. Andrew Cuomo in person.

“I don't believe in writing letters. I don't believe in phone calls. I do like to get right up in their face... I tell them what my demands are — not my asks, but my demands,” she said.

Several states moved to prohibit or severely limit the use of chokeholds and neck restraints after Floyd's death last year.

"I've dealt with a lot of racism from police officers you know, but I have to learn to shut my mouth cuz it's not worth me going 'clink clink' and sitting in the jail cell you know," the woman who chatted with Shepard said.

Shepard quipped, "But you're gonna say something good about us when you leave here today," and they all laughed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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