On Sunday, something amazing happened: Hundreds of people came to the Schenectady Police Department upset, scared and confused about what is happening in America and in our community. And I knelt to listen, and we heard each other.
I first saw the video of George Floyd being killed on social media on Thursday, May 28. My immediate reaction was that the officer involved had done something horrible and would need to be held accountable; I was thinking like a police chief.
Overnight it weighed more heavily on me, and I thought more broadly about how this could possibly have occurred in 2020. Then, after a friend put a message about the killing on social media that resonated with me, I decided not to sit on the sidelines for this one but to speak publicly about it. I announced on my professional Twitter account that George Floyd’s life matters, that I will do my part and that I would say his name. I meant it.
Over the next 24 hours I watched — like most Americans — as emotions ran high and became contagious, and then many large cities began seeing protests that, in some cases, eventually turned violent.
A protest was planned for Sunday, May 31, in Schenectady, New York, where I am the chief of police. The day before, peaceful protests in Albany — the state capital and a neighboring city — turned violent; I immediately became concerned about Schenectady, especially as social media was predicting that the violence was coming our way.
On Sunday in Schenectady, however, people gathered in a park and peacefully protested, making their voices heard, then peacefully marched to the front of the Schenectady Police Department to continue their protest against police brutality and systemic racism. The people who came wanted to be seen and heard — and they were. Along with Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy and my command staff, I watched and observed.
We were concerned that the protest might turn violent, as other protests had in other communities, though our concerns were not with the peaceful protesters but with unassociated instigators from outside our community. It was clear to us that the protest organizers did an excellent job making their intentions clear to all that the protest was to remain peaceful.
As the protest continued, the group organizer asked to speak to a boss. I was briefed on this and immediately said yes. During our meeting, I was asked to come out and answer questions from the crowd, and I was assured that the protest would end peacefully if I did, so I agreed.