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What To Do If You See Police Brutality And How We Begin To Change It

Chuck Quirmbach
A group marches to Mayfair Mall on June 6 to grieve the death of Alvin Cole, a 17-year-old who was shot by a police officer in the Mayfair Mall parking lot.

After the video of George Floyd's death surfaced, many people asked why no one stepped in to remove then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin from his neck.

Floyd's death has ignited protests around the country. It’s also started conversations about the role police officers play in society and the concept of defunding police departments.

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It was a bystander who took the cell phone video showing Chauvin holding his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. As Floyd begged for help and uttered “I can’t breath,” it was bystanders who urged the officers at the scene to intervene. 

Those three officers have now been charged for not stepping in, and Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder, at least in part due to the video. 

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Now, witnesses are capturing incidents of police violence against protesters in Milwaukee and around the country.

So, what should you do if you encounter police violence at a protest or anywhere else?

Paige Fernandez is the policing policy advisor at the national ACLU. She says in most cases, a bystander would be charged with obstruction of justice for intervening with a police officer and it’s a very dangerous idea to consider.

Her two suggestions are to get the incident on video and ask other police officers to step in.

“Once you secure your safety to record, if you find an incident like this, you have the right to record the police. So, recording and bearing witness is incredibly important,” says Fernandez. “Try to get other officers to intervene in what's happening, try to get them to talk to the cop who's engaging in the use of force or the excessive use of force. I think that's really imperative.”

Obviously, this doesn’t work every time — there were three other officers who stood by allowing excessive use of force to kill Floyd.

"Something that I think is really important for people to consider is divesting from police departments and investing in community-based services and resources."

Some activists have called for laws that would allow bystanders to intervene in cases of excessive force, on top of requiring fellow officers to step in and remove officers who are using such force. Minneapolis police do have this requirement and it is what led to the firing of the other three officers.

But Fernandez says allowing bystanders to intervene would still be dangerous. She says people need to be focused on larger, systemic changes that don’t allow for these incidents to occur.

“I think that we really need to think about policing as an institution and get down to the core of what institutional systemic changes must happen in order for this to stop. So, something that I think is really important for people to consider is divesting from police departments and investing in community-based services and resources,” she says. “George Floyd, Eric Garner, Philando Castillo, these are all black men who were murdered by the police after they had been targeted for a low-level offense that should not have resulted in their arrest and definitely should not have resulted in their murder.”

For Milwaukee, a city that has had to grieve the deaths of Sylville SmithDontre Hamilton, and Alvin Cole at the hands of police officers, she says the focus of change will come from the city.  

“Divesting from police departments and reinvesting in community-based services, including education and health care and housing, that’s something that can happen on the municipal level,” says Fernandez.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.