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Q & A with Forensic Studies Professor and former police officer, about racial tension in America

Posted at 7:12 AM, Jun 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-11 07:20:22-04

As our country faces increased tension in the weeks after George Floyd's death, Fox 4 is taking a deeper look at racial bias in policing. George Floyd died in Minneapolis after an officer was caught on camera pushing his knee into his neck for several minutes during an arrest.

Dr. David Thomas offers a unique perspective into what's happening in our country. Dr. Thomas is a Forensic Studies Professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, but before that, he was a police officer for 20 years.

"There is a loyalty that there is expected because you're a law enforcement officer. And then there's also that loyalty because you're black. And in there, you have to find that hybrid," Dr. Thomas said.

In the wake of Floyd's death, there have been a lot of conversations about if racism exists within police departments in our country. Dr. Thomas has done some research on police encounters within the black community, and talked to 100 different officers.

"The officers were very frank, and they talked about their heightened sense of when they're dealing with black subjects, race did play a role in how they treated people. Race did play a role and their readiness, so to speak, so that when they're having to interact with people, their stance and posture was different than it was with somebody else, Dr. Thomas said.

He also explained an example from when he was an Officer in Gainesville, and one of his fellow officers pulled over a black man.
"A 65-year-old man got stopped, and he's crippled. He doesn't have his driver's license on him. So the officer handcuffs him and searches him. And I'm sitting there thinking, 'OK, would you want somebody to do that to your dad? He's 65 years old, he's crippled. Hell, all you've got to do is have them stand on the side of the road, and have me come and just sit and talk to him, while you go do whatever you're going to do.' And he had every right to search the car. There was nothing wrong search, but it's the idea that he felt compelled that he had to handcuff him," Dr. Thomas said. "I have worked the west side of the town, where people are wanted on felony armed robbery warrants, and the suspect is white. They will arrest them, they will search the car. If there's no contraband in the car, then they'll either allow them to leave it at the scene, or they will allow them to have somebody come pick up the car, so the car doesn't get towed. So, there is two different perspectives."

Fox 4 Morning News Anchor Lisa Greenberg interviewed Dr. Thomas for an hour about racism and policing, after Floyd's death. Their Q&A is transcribed below.

Lisa: "How long were you a police officer?"
Dr. Thomas: "I worked for 20 years."

Lisa: "And you never saw anything like that before?"
Dr. Thomas "Nope. I looked at the whole eight minute video, and I have never seen anything like that in my entire life. And there have been instances where law enforcement, they've choked people or people will say they can't breathe and they die, and I get it. But this was so long and agonizing."

Lisa "What are your thoughts, seeing what's happening in our country right now, and the case of George Floyd?"
Dr. Thomas "I've been asked, 'Is it murder?' There is no doubt about it, it was murder. Because that should not have happened. It should have never happened. What makes it worse is, it was videotaped, and the whole world could see it. Minority communities have been screaming for years that this has gone on in our community, and now that you see the video, it gives validity to what has transpired and what has happened. When you look at Chauvin, and you see him just kind of sitting there with his hands in his pockets, just just looking. The thing that bothers me is, I have to believe that that is a norm, because he did it with such impunity. Because if it wasn't, somebody would've corrected him. They've been allowed to do certain things historically, or in that in that organization, and nobody's ever questioned them, because nobody that I can think of in their right mind would sit there and just be as satisfied with that, and not try to do anything to help another human being. Every officer that's at that scene has a responsibility, because they have care and custody of that individual. They basically own that person once they take them into custody, and they failed to do their job."

Lisa: "Is this issue getting worse, in your opinion, or is this something that's always been around, we're just seeing a spotlight on it?"
Dr. Thomas: "It's always been around. And with the advent of video, that has exacerbated it. But it has brought this whole thing to light."

Lisa: "Now that there's this microscope on police officers, and heightened tension between the African American community and police officers, what do you think police officers need to do now to de-escalate that tension in their daily lives?"
Dr. Thomas: "There really has to be a sense an attitude change. Officers kind of have lost the idea of who they're here for. We serve a community. The community sets the standard, and we need to abide by that standard. There are times when profanity is needed, and you're going to have to do what you need to do in order to get control of a situation. And there are time there tons of times where there's empathy that's needed. And those officers have to find it within themselves to have that empathy. This generation doesn't have the communication skills. They're lacking in that because everything they do is technology-based. When they tell somebody to do something, and the person doesn't do it, then the first thing they want to do is put hands on and arrest them. Come on."

Lisa: "How big of an issue is this within police departments? Is it just one percent of the bad guys getting caught on camera, or is this a bigger issue in police departments?"
Dr. Thomas: "The larger the department, the more difficult it is to police. By that, I mean to supervise. There's no way to determine what the numbers are. I just know that there are bad guys. And when they find the bad guys, they discipline them, but they don't necessarily terminate them. The unions play such a very strong role in that. I think even the police recognize that this has gone too far afield. Law enforcement has been forced to watch that video as well, and they know that they have people like that. A lot of agencies have people like that, and what they haven't done, though, is they haven't bothered to clean that group out."

Lisa: “Is there any kind of training to combat the possibility of racism coming through in policing?”
Dr. Thomas: “There's a component in the training that deals with bias on traffic stops. I would suspect after this is over, it's going to go through the roof. There will be training everywhere. Every agency will be doing something so they can say that they addressed the issue.”

Lisa: “Do they need to bring more of that back?”
Dr. Thomas: “I do, but it also depends on who’s delivering it. If the person coming in doing the training was a cop and paid their dues, and is coming in and having those conversations, it’s better received because you’ve been there where we’ve been, and you understand the dynamics, so we’re willing to sit and listen to you.”

Lisa: “What is giving you hope right now that this could get better?”
Dr. Thomas "What gives me hope now, actually believe it or not, is the protests. This is no longer going to be allowed to be the dirt swept under the carpet. It's not going away anytime soon. And the beautiful part about this is, that it's just not black people and Black Lives Matter. It is a cross section, and these protests are diverse, which means that people are tired, and they're fed up, and there needs to be change.”

Lisa: "What needs to happen next?”
Dr. Thomas: “We’re talking a year down the road, there has to be convictions. Because the country, they have to have healing. They have to show that the justice system works. It hasn’t when it comes to law enforcement officers. Very rarely are there convictions when officers are involved in any kind of behavior. When officers get away from the tactics they’ve been taught, is when we have this problem. So until they get a conviction, I think you’re going too see things teetering. And the Chiefs have to have relationships with not just the black leaders, they have to have relationships with people. You could do a town hall meeting, or you could go to a community center, and just the Chief sit down with the people and have those conversations with them, so they get to know the Chief. You literally have to get out beat on those doors, and go sit down, and have those small intimate meetings with people. There has to be a reasonable conversation, because the community isn’t going any where, and the police ain’t going nowhere. And those two are going to have to sit and decide what is the best way we can work together."