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Washington County Sheriff Objects To Use Of Term "Systemic Racism" Against Police

Sheriff Jeff Murphy
New York State Sheriffs' Association

Last week, Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy, who is also President of the New York State Sheriffs' Association, released a letter saying he wants politicians and leaders to refrain from using the term “systemic racism” against police departments.

As marches for racial justice and against police brutality continue across the country, Murphy wrote the term “fuels racism on all sides, and leads to worse, not better race relations in this country.”

At a time that exposes deep mistrust between communities of color and police departments, Murphy said he would welcome open and honest discussions on how police can enhance community relations.

WAMC's Lucas Willard asked Sheriff Murphy to further explain why he objects to the term “systemic racism.”

Well, I think because what, to me anyways, what it's saying is that that's the whole system, meaning the whole law enforcement system is racist and would approve of the actions that happened in Minnesota and it's just not the case. You know, so it goes against everything we train for, everything that we stand for, and what we want our officers when they interact with the public to do so in the right way. And we spend a lot of time, especially in New York State anyways, training for just the opposite of that, more community relations type training, more outreach programs that we have, and I just, I just don't think it's fair to label all law enforcement as either racist or using police brutality or excessive force or things like that.

Well, that being said, do you believe that racism does exist within the criminal justice system?

I think, you know, in as a whole and the whole community, I mean, you know, not a whole community, but in the world. I mean, it's, you know, it's unfortunate, for sure. And it's, but again, it's something that as police administrators, we certainly wouldn't condone. And no Sheriff that I know, certainly in New York State, or any police officer I've ever met, or in any administration would ever condone any type of racism or, or anything along those lines. And like I said, we do a lot of training in New York State. In fact, we're pretty well thought of as leaders in law enforcement around the country, in fact, in the world, and a lot of places send officers to New York to be trained. So that's the frustrating part is when we spend so much time trying to do the right thing, trying to get officers that are fully trained, you know, bring them up through the ranks, do all the hours you need to do have them sign on to the philosophy that we're here to serve the public. And you know, it's just frustrating when things like this happen. And then we're all painted with a broad brush.

I was curious about how you felt personally when you watched that video of the officer placing his knee on George Floyd's neck. And I was also curious if you agree with the charges that were brought against the officers involved.

Yeah, that's it as far as I can talk about New York state. I mean, that's not something that's taught for sure. I mean, we never teach officers to use force in that manner where you use your knee and your body weight on someone's neck. And that's what certainly appeared what was going on in that video. So yeah, we would never train that train that or allow that to happen. I think the charges are appropriate. And I think that inaction by the other officers is also warranted as far as charges. You know, it's just a bad, bad incident to happen. I think you'd have to look at all the all the aspects of what might have led up to that, you know, as far as officers’ background, disciplinary record, things like that, you know, training, especially. So I think there's a lot of things that will probably come out in the future weeks, as this unfolds, that maybe we'll learn more information about things like that.

A couple of things that you just touched on there, Governor Cuomo on Friday announced a list of reforms, including allowing transparency of those disciplinary records, something that's often referred to as making a change to the 50A of the state's civil rights law, and then also a proposal to ban the use of chokeholds in New York State, and do you agree with those proposals?

Yeah, just wish that the 50A issue didn't come up as a result of something else that happened. Like I said, in this case, and I know it was brought up before the legislation, but in this case because of something that happened in Michigan, or Minnesota. So that's where we have a problem with that, it's like the legislation that just seems to be anti law enforcement and aimed at law enforcement as if we're doing something wrong as a result of something happened in other state, even in this case. And I think that 50A has been in existence for 40 years, and now all of a sudden, because something happens, you know, somewhere else, it comes to the forefront again. And also I think that the process is flawed, you know, just like bail reform and discovery. Law enforcement is not consulted. We don't even have a seat at the table to discuss these types of things. And yet they're pushed through the legislature and then the next thing you know, we were just forced to go along with it. And you see what happened with bail reform? You know, by doing that.

And what about the use of chokeholds? You know, we don't have to look that far back in New York where we did have something, the case of Eric Garner, who passed away after he was restrained by police. Do you agree with the proposal to end the use of chokeholds?

Well, you know, I can speak for my agency in particular. We certainly don't train that way. That was not a defense tactic, or arrest tactic, or technique that's used at all. And it shouldn't be. So I don't really see an issue with that at all. No, I mean, it's just I think there's plenty of other options of force that could be used against the defendant. You know, and the only issue that I would see with that is if, and again, you know, it could be a circumstance that you just can't plan for, if an officer was disarmed somehow or the suspect got the officers gun. You have to use any force you can in a case like that. So, you know, again, I wish that law enforcement had an opportunity to talk with the people that propose these bills and have input. You know, we're not the bad guy. We'd love to have a seat at the table. But again, it's another piece of legislation that we're not consulted on.

And Sheriff Murphy, I wanted to ask you about up your way, well in neighboring Warren County, there was a peaceful protest that drew a couple of thousand to Glens Falls. And were you or your deputies on hand there, and what did you think?

Well, first of all, I congratulate everybody that was involved with that, planning it. I know they were in contact with local law enforcement. I know several people that attended the rally including my daughter, the march. I thought it was done very well and I wasn't there to see that, but I did have officers there. So I think it's something to be proud of that they're there. People are able to assemble in a group that size and stand up for something that they that they believe and not have the looting and the vandalism and the arsons and murders and everything else that have happened around the country. So I applaud the people of this region that that showed that you can do that.

So in those protests that have escalated into violence and clashes between protesters and police, they've often involved tear gas. You have police, they're wearing helmets and having batons. I wanted to ask you this. Do you think that part of the reason why these protests that people see on the news have escalated is because of that enhanced police presence, that once that first tear gas canister is used, then the genie’s out of the bottle there, that it's hard to deescalate a situation after that?

Yeah, you know, it's hard for me to speak to that. I live in a part of the country where we don't have that happening a lot and I don’t a lot of experience personal with that. I think from a policy standpoint, certainly, you know, that tear gas or any kind of gas like that would only be used when necessary, when required, and as a last resort, and I know that from just what I've seen on the news, not having personal knowledge, that when officers are pelted with rocks and bottles and assaulted and there's an officer in Las Vegas was shot in the back of the head. You know, there was there's many officers of shot across the country. You know, when people gather and take advantage of a situation and for criminal reasons, and burned down buildings and assault the law enforcement and vandalize, do all that stuff, I think law enforcement, certainly within their rights to use gas and then in a lot of cases, it appeared as though that was the only thing that broke the crowds up to get them to move along. And you certainly would rather use gas then use physical force or go into the crowd with shields and batons and all that stuff. So, get the gas in my opinion is just a tool to be used to try to avoid having physical contact with people.

I also wanted to ask you about the message that's coming out of Washington during the last couple of weeks. President Trump has expressed his condolences for Mr. Floyd's family. But on the other hand, he sent his message early on of when the looting starts, the shooting starts, and that harkens back to the civil rights era relating to force against protesters in the 1960s. And the President has also called on governors to dominate as protests continue. For law enforcement that may not support this kind of rhetoric that might consider it divisive, is there a need for a more visible response from law enforcement?

Well, like again, from what I've seen on the news from some of these larger cities from what happened with you know, the during the day the protests were civil, the people that were there or civil, they're speaking their mind or had the right to assemble, no issues and as soon as it got dark, and certain people and in many cases for what I'm what I've heard anyways, if people that weren't even at the protests are the march or the civil part and then you know, for criminal reasons come out and cause damage and burn down businesses and right in the very neighborhoods where they live. It just doesn't make sense and especially when it comes to assaulting other people, and there's been homicides and it's just a horrible to see and it's actually heartbreaking to see across the country these events that happen. I think any rhetoric that is not constructive or any talk that's not constructive is divisive and I would urge all sides to not participate in that kind of rhetoric and it's kind of like what I wanted to come across in my letter and I just, you know, as when something awful like this happens, if it could be used to get groups together and look at how we police and how we interact with the public, have agencies have more interaction with the community on different levels, you know, that would be helpful and not choosing sides, us versus them on either side.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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