Big Island police chief talks George Floyd case, protests

  • FERREIRA

Hawaii County Police Chief Paul Ferreira said the viral video of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of an African-American man, who later died, “reflects upon all police officers.”

The cellphone video, taken by a bystander, shocked America. In cities throughout the nation, outraged citizens took to the streets for protests — some peaceful, others degenerating into rioting, looting and burning.

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The officer, Derek Chauvin, was fired and later charged with second-degree murder for the May 25 death of 46-year-old George Floyd, who was unarmed and pleaded for air as Chauvin pinned him to the pavement for almost nine minutes. Three other officers were charged as accomplices to the homicide.

“What I saw on the video itself, it was an excessive use of force. I could tell you my emotional reaction, but you couldn’t print it. It’s like when the officers in Honolulu made the guy drink urine from the toilet bowl,” Ferreira said, referring to Samuel Ingall, a homeless man forced to lick a urinal by two Honolulu Police Department officers to avoid being arrested. “Anytime an officer does something like that, it plays upon the public perception of the entire police force, regardless of whether you’re in Hawaii or California or Washington, D.C.

“And when I see something like that, I go, ‘How is this going to play out for the rest of the officers? How is this going to play out for our people?’”

The Black Lives Matter movement has been at the forefront of the demonstrations, saying systemic racism is responsible for the deaths of Floyd and other African-Americans at the hands of police. Even in Hawaii, where African-Americans comprise just more than 2% of the population, “Black Lives Matter” signs were displayed prominently during recent rallies in Hilo and elsewhere.

“As you’ve seen, the protests have been very peaceful,” Ferreira said. “I drove through Saturday when they lined both sides of the road on Kamehameha (Avenue), and it was very peaceful. It was no different from protests that have been out there regarding domestic violence, (the Thirty Meter Telescope), for Hawaiian sovereignty. It’s always been pretty much peaceful. We have no problem with that, and we’re going to stay neutral on the whole issue, which is what we’re supposed to be.

“We don’t condone the actions of the officers, and we understand the people’s right to protest.”

Ferreira said media coverage of the mainland protests tends to magnify alleged acts of police brutality, such as White House security firing tear gas and rubber bullets into a group of peaceful protesters, and two Buffalo, N.Y., police officers pushing a 75-year-old demonstrator and seriously injuring him.

“Unfortunately, the media will pick up on the bad acts of an officer, and they will publicize it and push it out there,” Ferreira said. “But the good acts that happen, a lot of times, it gets overlooked. And even with the protests that have been going on, there are officers that have been shot. There are officers that have been injured during these protests. And that has not been publicized.”

Hundreds of officers nationwide reportedly have been injured during protests and at least two have been shot and killed. One was David Dorn, a 77-year-old retired St. Louis police captain who was shot by looters as he checked on an alarm at a pawn shop. The other was 53-year-old Patrick Underwood, a federal officer providing security at an Oakland, Calif., courthouse during a protest, who was fired upon from a passing vehicle. Both officers were African-American.

Courts have uniformly held that private citizens have a right to video police on the beat as long as those citizens don’t interfere with police operations or trespass to shoot video.

“I tell that to the officers on their first day — that the career that they’ve chosen is under public scrutiny,” Ferreira said. “And then, I hold up my cellphone and tell them, ‘Everybody has one of these. Everybody’s videotaping what you’re doing. And the video is only capturing one perspective of it. So be very aware of your actions when you’re on or off duty.

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“Your conduct is under scrutiny.’”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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