PORT ANGELES — Clallam County law enforcement agencies had banned choke holds long before the national outrage over the death of George Floyd, officials said.
The county’s top cops were “upset” and “sickened” to see videos of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin press his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes May 25, they said in recent interviews.
Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder. The killing has sparked worldwide protests against racism and police brutality.
“That man just didn’t give a damn, and you could see it in his demeanor and how he did it,” said Chief Sheri Crain of the Sequim Police Department.
“There is not one professional tenet in our profession that would support his action,” Crain said. “The smallest snippet of video, it told a story that is so clear, so concise and so wrong that it makes sense to me that the world is now kind of erupting around it.”
Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict described the Floyd video as “sickening.”
“What was obvious to me was that you had a bad cop that was not following policy, was not even using common sense or being humane,” Benedict said.
“Certainly it appears that there might have been some racial animus there, but I can’t comment on that directly other than to say I know as a professional police officer that that was police misconduct.”
Clallam County’s elected sheriff and three police chiefs said officers are trained to use force only when necessary, a statement echoed by their counterparts in Jefferson County.
“If you can stop the use of force, use of force should stop,” Forks Police Chief Mike Rowley said in a June 10 interview.
“We’re going to use our verbal skills as much as possible and try to not resort to any use of force,” he said.
Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith said local law enforcement agencies practice community-oriented policing where officers do “more of everything” in areas like education, homeless assistance and overdose intervention.
An example is embedding a social worker from the Olympic Peninsula Community Clinic’s Rediscovery Program to connect homeless people with resources that could help them avoid the court system.
After two years, the department has received a grant from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) to expand the program. It was one of only two departments in the state to get the grant.
“Navigators” also work with Sequim and Port Townsend police departments.
“One of the things that we wanted to make sure people know — and I’ve had a lot of contact with people — is that we’re listening,” said Smith, who has attended protests in Port Angeles. “We hear you.”
The Clallam County Sheriff’s Office and Port Angeles and Sequim police departments have been audited on the use of force and other policies as part of being accredited by WASPC.
Only 20 percent of the 300 law enforcement agencies in the state have earned that distinction, having passed a thorough audit on standards of evidence, records, confidentiality, transparency, use of force, on-going training, pursuit review, internal investigations, performance evaluations and the absence of bias-based policing.
“We’re all working collaboratively, sharing best practices and working to what are really high standards,” Smith said in a June 10 interview.
Since choke holds and Lateral Vascular Neck Restraints are prohibited by the Sheriff’s Office and police policy, Benedict said what happened to Floyd would be “extremely unlikely” to happen on the North Olympic Peninsula.
The other Minneapolis police officers who stood by as Chauvin continued to choke Floyd “absolutely” should have done what they could to stop it, Benedict said.
“If a police officer or a deputy is either misbehaving or is feloniously assaulting someone, I expect our people to intervene,” Benedict said in a June 11 interview in his office.
Smith posted a message in support of Port Angeles police officers on the department’s Facebook page after Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests.
“Every day we value and celebrate the protection of human life,” Smith wrote.
In a later interview, Smith said his “heart sank” when he first saw the Floyd video.
“My heart continues to sink,” Smith said.
“That’s not us. That’s not how we would have handled that.”
Rowley described the video as “pretty upsetting.”
“By no means was it justifiable for the continuation of force,” Rowley said in a June 10 interview.
“They should have sat him up and put him in a patrol car.”
“Unfortunately, I knew as soon as that video came out that law enforcement as a whole was going to be subject to scrutiny from that,” Rowley added.
Forks police also practice community-oriented policing and have developed relationships with city residents, Rowley said.
“Often times, my officers don’t have to use force because they have that relationship with that community member,” Rowley said.
Rowley added that Forks police use the same de-escalation techniques that are used throughout the state.
“Our No. 1 best tool that we wear on our belts is going be our communication skills,” Rowley said.
Shortly after becoming sheriff in 2008, Benedict pushed for re-accreditation and established a citizens’ advisory committee that still meets quarterly.
The Sheriff’s Office was re-accredited in 2009, becoming one of only seven agencies to be accredited statewide.
Benedict noted that numerous complaints (18, according to CNN) had been logged against Chauvin prior to Floyd’s death.
“I’m basically a supporter of public service unions or guilds,” Benedict said.
“However, I think that, nationwide, some of them have become way too powerful. Too strong.
“Many times, the unions have resisted disciplining or removing police officers who break the law, who misbehave,” Benedict added.
Benedict opined that the arbitration process should be open to the public and qualified immunity, which prevents victims of police violence or misconduct from suing, is “something that needs to be changed.”
Benedict, who flew fighter jets during a 22-year career in the Navy, said he is a proponent of police demilitarization.
“I personally think it is totally inappropriate for law enforcement, particularly medium and small agencies, to have weapons of war, and by that I’m talking about military armored vehicles,” Benedict said.
“I do not like police officers dressed up in military fatigues and cammo gear and whatnot,” he added. “They should be clearly identified as police.”
After being elected sheriff, Benedict returned the Peacekeeper, an armored Sheriff’s Office personnel carrier, to the Marine Corps.
When asked if morale has suffered in the wake of the Floyd murder, Benedict said: “I’m certain it has.”
“For one thing, policing is proud profession,” Benedict said.
“It’s a necessary profession. I think that a lot of our deputies and police officers on the Peninsula, they resent being tarred or impugned because of the activities of a clearly illegal, immoral, unethical and criminal act by another police officer.”
Crain penned a June 11 guest column in the Sequim Gazette that encouraged a dialogue between law enforcement and the community.
“Law enforcement can be a partner, and I think that’s the point that I was trying to make,” Crain said in a June 11 interview.
Crain said parts of the nation had “significant problems with racism and bad policing.”
“I think the Sequim community in general supports the police department,” Crain added.
“I think we’ve built trust in our community, and I think it’s there. I think a lot of the issues that are being raised aren’t necessarily a direct dig at our agency.”
Crain said the Floyd protests are “bigger than maybe we’ve ever seen since the civil rights movement in the ’60s.”
“If there’s ever an opportunity to maybe make some substantial change, this might be it,” Crain said.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].