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The common ground between law enforcement and activists’ call to ‘defund the police’

As the nation watches the trial of Derek Chauvin, we return to the debate that George Floyd's death ignited. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault spoke with current and former law enforcement officers about "defunding the police," and what reforms they believe are needed to improve relations between them and the communities they serve. It's part of our ongoing series, Race Matters.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the nation's eyes are on the trial of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, we return to the debate over defunding the police that George Floyd's death ignited last summer.

    Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault spoke with current and former law enforcement officers about what reforms they believe are needed to improve relations between police and the communities they serve.

    It's part of our ongoing series Race Matters.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Our conversation about solutions is with three veteran police officers.

    Wanda Gilbert is a retired Miami police officer. She was fired for blowing the whistle on a string of dubious arrests, but was handed a legal victory by a Miami jury that agreed she was unjustly fired. Erik Blake is the chief of police in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, a position he's held for 18 years.

    And Delrish Moss was the police chief of Ferguson, Missouri, appointed two years after the police killing of Michael Brown. He's currently a law enforcement captain with the Florida International University Police Department.

    And thank you all for joining us.

    There been all kinds of investigations and studies and even a presidential task force making recommendations aimed at a national reckoning over policing. What's gone wrong?

  • Wanda Gilbert:

    What's gone wrong is that the community now is asking for accountability, and they're also asking for a redress.

    And now it's an explosion of really looking into systemic racism within policing.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    There have been so many studies that say, this is how we fix things. Why haven't they been fixed?

  • Erik Blake:

    I think part of the issue is that the priority on diversity training or unconscious bias training or de-escalation isn't — hasn't been as important as the standard trainings that everyone's been doing.

    And that's — there hasn't been accountability in a lot of states. You need law enforcement leaders to consider the issues that are going on in the community with their police officers as important as anything else.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Delrish Moss, what's your thought about why haven't these studies that have been serious studies about what was going wrong, I mean, why haven't they made a difference?

  • Delrish Moss:

    Well, I think there's a number of — there are a number of issues.

    We shift as a nation constantly. At one point, it was terrorism. Those priorities shift. And as a result of those shifts, we also get kind of variables in what happened.

    We also need to be looking at consistency, because we have got 18,000 police departments across the country. They're not all built the same with regard to training, resources and even priorities.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    We're in the midst of intense, sustained political divisions in the country.

    And so sometimes even the pushback comes from police unions. How do you even deal with that? How do you respond to that?

  • Delrish Moss:

    I think one of the things that has to be the focus is that unions, they have their responsibility. Their responsibility is to protect their membership and to protect the people that they are designed to serve.

    But police chiefs have to remember that your job is to be sure that you're giving the citizenry the best policing that they want. And so, even when you get pushback from unions, even when there's that political push, you have got to make the tough decisions. You have got to fire people who need to be fired. You have got to have people arrested who need to be arrested. And you have got to make changes where they need to be made.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    How do you put that into practice, since we have got a situation where Black people are being killed by police at a rate that's much greater than their population, Chief Blake?

  • Erik Blake:

    You need to hold people accountable.

    I think leadership across the country needs to spend more time looking at the individual officers that are having complaints against them. And, again, police chiefs need to focus on making sure that their police departments are well-trained not just in and defensive tactics or firearms, but in community policing and understanding who their community are, and making sure that they are held accountable every single day for what they do.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Wanda Gilbert, let me ask you what you think about the defund idea.

    What does that mean to you?

  • Wanda Gilbert:

    Well, I think what has happened with that particular statement of defunding the police, it has gotten caught up in the political ramifications that have been going on in this country for the last five years.

    But I think what it — the real essence of it — and I think defund has been co-opted, for the real meaning is that it really just needs to be real accountability.

    When you talk about implicit biases, those are not things where they can be trained and come to one training session for a week and then to go back out. There should be some community involvement. There should be some redress. There should be some follow-up.

  • Erik Blake:

    Some people are using the narrative of abolish the police. Of course, I'm not a proponent of abolishing the police.

    But defund the police, in a local community like ours, we went ahead and reached out to the mental health community, the women's support services community, and actually engaged them and said, is the relationship that we have with you what you want? Are we doing a good job? Can we do a better job?

    Are there things that you want to do that we're doing that you want to take from us? And our personal conversation was, no, we like our relationship.

    But what I try to get across to my officers is, don't be afraid of that narrative. It doesn't mean that people are trying to get rid of you.

    For years, we have been complaining, as police officers, that we have gone from being servers and protectors to everything from mental health advocates, to homeless advocates, to support advocates. So, they keep throwing everything on our plate.

    And we're saying, so now that everything's on our plate, and they want to take some stuff off of our plate, we're saying, no, don't take that off of our plate.

    Well, you can't have it both ways. So, it doesn't mean — for my community, it doesn't mean a reduction in personnel. It means help. We need to do this together. We're not going to solve — we're not going to solve these problems by law enforcement.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Captain Moss, let me get your take on defund.

  • Delrish Moss:

    Well, I think that all has really depended on who I have had the conversation with.

    There are people who are — who want outright abolition of police, and there are people who've talked about some of the very things that police chiefs were calling for when we were saying, you can't throw the police at every single problem that exists. A homeless situation, you can't throw the police at that, when you don't provide services.

    Mental health, when you don't provide services for people, and they become the police problem, and the only thing we're doing is throwing police at problems, and then we're upset when police don't do it well. That has been an issue.

    So, I think that, in that conversation, there is some common ground in terms of where we're trying to get. We have just got to sit down and figure out how to get there.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Wanda Gilbert, what is your big solution at this point? Is there a big one?

  • Wanda Gilbert:

    Well, I think there is a big solution.

    And it goes back to police accountability. And one of the big things that I think in this new change is not respond to a situation first, before you investigate with your guns on, because, already, you have escalated the situation.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    And, Captain Moss, what, in your view, is the biggest solution that can address these issues?

  • Delrish Moss:

    Look, when I took over the Ferguson Police Department, one of the first things we did was, we went door to door, introducing ourselves to people and talking to them about what their priorities were.

    And that had a number of effects. But one of the effects was, they got to know me, they got to know my staff, and they got to know — we got to know who they were, so that the next time we responded to a place, it wasn't the first time we were meeting someone.

    I think, when you start to sit down and you get to know people, and you start building trust, you can respond better, you can come up with better solutions. And you are more legitimate in whatever you find, because people have already built a certain relationship with you.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    And, finally, are you hopeful that this can be resolved, given all of the issues we have right now in this country?

  • Delrish Moss:

    I'm very hopeful that we will solve all of our problems, because I think the brain trust, the heart, all of that stuff, all of that is there to solve problems.

    And I think our problems are ever-evolving. We just got to be ready to adjust and adapt, because, even with the problems that we're having today, rather than thinking that we're going to get to a destination, we have to realize that the work is continual, and it requires continual change and continual adjustment to the new realities that exist.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Thank you.

    Chief Blake?

  • Erik Blake:

    I'm actually very helpful.

    I was — this is my 34th year in law enforcement. And I remember when Rodney King happened. There was riots and there was call for change. And were there any real changes going on? Not really.

    So now, this past year, with the protests and the — I mean, we're talking national changes going on from the White House, not only just the states, from the White House. So I really am hopeful that we get to a better place.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Thank you.

    Wanda Gilbert?

  • Wanda Gilbert:

    Yes, I'm very hopeful.

    And, as you can see, it's happened even internationally, where the world is changing. And also, too, if you look at our young people, we have to have hope, because what are we going to leave? And we often talk about what we want to leave for our children. We can fix this. And you just have to be honest, open, truthful.

    And we — you just can't have a training and say we have got rid of implicit biases. They are real. We just have to be real. And I'm very hopeful.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Real and hopeful.

    Well, thank you all for joining me, Wanda Gilbert, Chief Blake, and Captain Moss. Thank you all for joining us and leaving us with hope.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And thank you, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, for such an important conversation, especially at this moment.

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