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OP-ED: A cop's view of George Floyd's murder

Marcos Bretón
The Sacramento Bee (TNS)
Derek Chauvin is placed in custody after his guilty verdict on all charges in an image from Court TV,  is read on Tuesday, April 20, 2021, in the trial of Chauvin, in the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. (Court TV/Pool/TNS)

Many times in recent years I have wished Rick Braziel was still the chief of police in Sacramento.

Now 61 and eight years retired from being Sacramento's top cop, Braziel is the law enforcement leader we needed in recent years.

The conviction of former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd on Tuesday does not alter a problem that caused it. So much damage has been done by a lack of accountability and transparency in deadly shootings by police.

Departmental cultures are a huge impediment to reform. We have all seen the video of Chauvin killing Floyd a little less than a year ago. What Braziel, with his point of view shaped by years of law enforcement, noticed most was how some cops on scene just stood by while Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck until he died.

He knew what he saw, what desperately needed to be changed.

"The culture that created Chauvin," he said Tuesday after the verdict. "The question is how you deal with it. You ask yourself, culturally, 'why did the other officers not stop this? What went horribly wrong?'"

Braziel said what he noticed was that bystanders were yelling at Chauvin to get off of Floyd.

"He was almost in defiance of what they were asking him to do," he said. "He wasn't going to do it."

Is there a common theme to these tragic incidents?

"A lack of courageous leadership," he said.

Teach cops to do better: In nearly five years as chief, from January 2008 to December 2012, Braziel was a rare combination of strategic thinking, a lack of defensiveness and a belief in a dispassionate review of police tactics as a necessary element in achieving community accountability.

How many violent protests, how many deaths, could have been avoided in the last eight years if more law enforcement leaders shared these beliefs?

In this community, we don't have to wonder. We know what has happened.

You might remember the last time Braziel was in the news in 2018. He was the inspector general for Sacramento County. His job was to review deputy-involved shootings, jail deaths, and accusations of abuse, among other duties. He wrote in his report of a 2017 fatal shooting Mikel McIntyre, a Black man, that deputies did not need to use fatal force.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones lost it, locked Braziel out of his buildings, and, in the end, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors did nothing about it. McIntyre became another Black man who did not have to be killed, but was. Local accountability for the killing was not only denied, the cop whose agency caused community trauma — Jones — was defiant and unrepentant.

And he got away with it. Jones cemented his reputation as the kind of law enforcement leader we don't need. Braziel did the opposite. Jones remained in office, Braziel returned to private life.

How much did this outcome contribute to an accumulation of community mistrust in Sacramento that escalated killing after killing in here and nationwide?

Braziel's report was meant to be used as a learning tool for deputies to train for and be mindful of situations they could de-escalate. Braziel was trying to encourage a culture that didn't result in them emptying their guns at a man who no longer posed a fatal threat because he ran away.

His focus was to teach cops to do better.

He believes the deputies involved in the McIntyre killing could have been prosecuted by the district attorney. They were not.

He believes the Sacramento police officers involved in the 2016 fatal shooting of Joseph Mann could have been prosecuted, though they were not.

To Braziel, the Mann case on a hot July day in north Sacramento illustrated how police departments cause communities to lose faith in them. Mann, 50, was mentally ill and clearly having an emotional crisis. Calls to police reported that Mann had a knife. Mann also had methamphetamine in his system, according to the county coroner report.

Braziel analyzed that tragic incident. What jumped out at him — what was lost — was that the first cops on scene were arresting Mann peacefully. But two other officers — Randy Lozoya and John Tennis — tried to run over Mann with their police car as they arrived. They then ran toward Mann and shot him 14 times.

"I think Tennis could have been prosecuted for trying to run him over with the car," Braziel said.

This incident was compounded by a virtual cover-up by the City of Sacramento. The city would not release video of the incident. Neither police officials nor city council members would talk about it.

It was a complete disaster that caused the community rightfully to lose trust in law enforcement and City Hall.

"If Mann doesn't happen I don't believe the response to (the killing by city police of) Stephon Clark (in 2018) would have been as deep as it was," Braziel. "I one hundred percent agree there was a cumulative effect."

Since he retired, Braziel has dedicated his life to law enforcement training through work with the National Police Foundation. He does organization assessments and critical incident reviews. He was part of a Justice Department report in 2015 that analyzed widespread abuses by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

That was where Michael Brown, a Black teenager, was killed by police in 2014. The incident spawned the Black Lives Matter movement.

"It was deeper than just the police agency in Ferguson," Braziel said."Local government was corrupt. Mayors and city council members were involved."

Ferguson and surrounding cities identified police citations as a valuable revenue stream and Black people paid the price. A culture of mistrust made Brown's killing possible.

Citizen review and transparency: What would he do if he was in charge?

"You're trying to get in front of it, you're falling on your sword," he said.

Braziel said that some law enforcement leaders can both respect the sanctity of an investigation and resist the temptation to judge, but also acknowledge what we see on video looks disturbing, troubling or horrific.

He said too many departments still resist releasing video after fatal incidents. Too many city attorneys are more concerned with liability than transparency.

"You're not sleeping during these incidents," he said. "You're trying to figure out what happened and why."

Braziel said he is in favor of departments having civilian participation in reviewing incidents in which cops are accused of killing suspects. He thinks counties can employ a more collaborative approach to investigating fatal use of force by police. How? By having an investigator from one law enforcement agency in one jurisdiction investigate a fatal use of force in another. That would decrease, though not totally eliminate, the chances of a cop investigating another cop who might be a friend or even a former police academy classmate.

He thinks communities should consider dedicating outside investigators to review killings.

Braziel's last act as chief in Sacramento was firing Gary Dale Baker, a cop later convicted of raping a disabled woman in her 70s. He was sentenced to life in prison.

"I'm still mad about that to this day," he said.

If anything, Braziel proves that individuals can make a difference. How much different would our lives be if Braziel was the most high-profile cop in Sacramento instead of Jones?

What has changed is what we see. Braziel said that 20 years ago, when video was far less prevalent, a case like Floyd's might have received one paragraph in the newspaper. "Now if any agency doesn't get in front of it, we are left with the perception. ... And everyone pays a price for it." And without a change in culture, we pay a price in lives lost.

— Marcos Bretón writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years.