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Schenectady Police Chief: "Pretty Amazing Moment" As Officers, Protesters Kneel As One

Police join with protesters in Schenectady Sunday.
Police join with protesters in Schenectady Sunday in this video captured by WNYT..

Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford and his officers made national headlines on Sunday when they marched and kneeled alongside protesters who gathered in the city as part of nationwide actions following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody last week. There was no violence in the city Sunday, and a curfew remains in effect. Clifford spoke with WAMC Monday morning.

Can you just take us through Sunday's protests and your actions from your point of view?

We were fortunate to have already seen what happened in Albany. So we had the ability to better plan and prepare for it than the city of Albany was, unfortunately for them. But so we when we got word that there was going to be a protest rally in the city of Schenectady. And we took to monitoring social media. We saw that there were some people talking about bringing the violence to Schenectady. So we wanted to be prepared, just in case that occurred to protect our businesses and our residents.

We put together a really good plan. Many members of the surrounding police agencies assisted us, which we were very grateful for. The protest started right on time at Veterans Park and then they marched to the Police Department peacefully and they held a peaceful rally. And we let it unfold. We gave a little bit of a discretion to them to march in the streets, we allowed them to take as much time as they needed. And after the first initial protest, that rally ended, another one formed and continued to march around and they came back to the police station and they were in the front for a little while. They came around back. And one of the organizers asked one of our officers to speak with a boss. And, you know, I said, absolutely, I'll speak and what he basically said to me was, would you be willing to come out and speak to everybody? And he said, I think this will end peacefully if you do. I said, absolutely. Let's go do this. And we went out there. And we had a, we had a really good conversation. They asked questions. Members of the group that was there. I gave the best answers I could. And then somebody in the in the in the crowd asked if we would take a knee with them. And I said, absolutely. And when I took my knee, officers behind me, they also took one. And it was a pretty amazing moment when that happens.

It's become, amazingly, a very loaded action to take in this country. We've been debating it for the last several years. You know, going back to Colin Kaepernick. And not an uncontroversial choice for a police chief. So how did you decide to do it? And what do you think it means?                                                                                                                                             

Well, I did it, because I sensed that it meant a lot to the people that were there to ask us to do that. And I felt that by doing it, it would show empathy that, you know, I, I know what they're going through, and I recognize that we as a profession need to do better at what we're doing. And I actually did not really think that when we did it, it was going to have the reaction that it did, but it was it was almost like, you know, pulling the plug in an inner tube, you just felt the air go out of it.

And that's kind of what happened when we all took the knee and, and it was really the changing moment right there. They asked us to march with them afterwards. I said absolutely. And we all walked hand in hand around the block. And then we went to the front of the police station and had a good conversation one on one for at least a half hour, 45 minutes afterwards, up to the point where one of the organizers actually came up to me and said, you know, I think we've, we've spent enough time here. Why don't you guys go inside so we can go because, you know, there's always some concern that agitators will come and try to infiltrate a peaceful protest. And then you don't know, you know, who's who at that point because the people can blend in together. So that was, you know, that's kind of how we how we progressed throughout the day. And we were very, very happy with the way the evening unfolded. There was really no issues at all here in the city.

What was your reaction personally to the video of George Floyd’s death?

It didn't take me long. The first time as soon as I saw I knew that like, this is not right. This is wrong on so many different levels. You know, it was wrong what happened to George Floyd. Should have never ever had that happen to him. It was wrong that the police officer thought that that was appropriate. It was wrong that there was another police officer standing right next to him as he pled for help, and didn't do anything. And there's so many things that are wrong with that video.

And I knew I knew that in addition to George Floyd and the suffering that he must have gone through then that this was not going to be good for our profession; that you know, this is just set us back from all the gains that we've made. But you know, there's a silver lining in anything. I'm hopeful that you know, small moments like we had yesterday might help us actually bring up together and I even mentioned that yesterday that, you know, for weren't for George Floyd, this wouldn't have happened. So that's the only the only positive that may have come out of this is that maybe we all start looking at what's going on and talking a little bit more. And, you know, as a profession, we think that well, we practice procedural dresses, we do this and that. And what we're hearing is that, yeah, that's not enough, though you need to do more. So I certainly hear that.

Has that video caused you to rethink any of your department's policies or procedures or have you issued any new guidance to your officers?

Not really. We've issued some reminders. I made it perfectly clear the day after I watched the video. I went to line up that morning. I made it perfectly clear everybody what's seen in the video is not appropriate anymore. That is caught doing that, and this department will be fired. And, you know, I asked all my supervisors to make sure that this is not occurring. And I don't think it is, we've been changing the way we've been doing things for as long as I've been the chief, we monitor every, every time force is used, we have a form that's filled out, they're reviewed by supervisors up all the way up to myself, I get an email to me, I look at everyone. And anything that doesn't look right, we look at a little bit closer. So, you know, our, the force that we use, has gone down significantly over the last couple of years. And, you know, I'm not saying that we don't have to use force periodically, but we, we've, we've already changed the way we've done things. So this instance, hasn't had us change anything. It's just, you know, for obvious reasons it's made us look closer at everything to say, OK, let's just make sure that this isn't something that's happening here. Because, you know, I would like to think that if it was, we would have already caught it.

The mayor's state of emergency and curfew order are in effect until further notice, as I understand it. So are you expecting more protests throughout the next few days? And how are you preparing? I'm sure this won't be the last spasm we're seeing at least nationally.

Yeah, we are prepared. We have the plan in place, the same one that we had yesterday. And we are monitoring everything closely. We're monitoring what's happening, you know, at our, at our large city to our to our east, Albany. And we're monitoring what's happening locally, or I'm sorry, nationally, and I'm hopeful that we don't have anything moving forward and, you know, the curfew can be lifted sooner than later. But, you know, the curfew I think is a good idea right now. Until we see where everything is going nationally on the on the protest levels. You know, again, peaceful protests are welcome. They're encouraged, actually. But we cannot have agitators come to the peaceful protests and turn them violent, which is certainly what's occurred in Albany and in other cities throughout the nation.

You've mentioned the Albany protests a couple of times. What did you make of those?

I just think that it was unfortunate that it happened. I think that the peaceful protesters that were there during the day, it's taking away from a lot of the good things that they wanted to do. Many of the people that were at the protest here in Schenectady were also at the one at Albany. So it just goes to show you that they weren't there to cause problems. They were there to peacefully protest. And it was agitators that were in the crowds. That took it to another level. And you know, my thoughts and prayers go out to the city of Albany residents, the Albany Police Department, all law enforcement in that area and the residents that I hope that they can pull together there and decide to unite like we did. And, you know, as a community, tearing down businesses during this pandemic is not what's needed right now. It's coming together as residents.

Chief, is there anything I didn't ask you that you'd like to add?

I want to make sure that I give credit where credit is due and the protesters, the organizers deserve a lot of credit for opening their hearts to allowing me to come out and talk and they, they listened, just like I did. So I want to thank them for that. And also I want to thank all my officers. They showed great restraint, because protesters did get loud and animated. And it was their right to do so. But our officers allowed them to do that. They gave them that respect. And so I appreciate everything that they did. And it's not just my officers, it's their officers from throughout the county that were that were here helping us, all the different agencies. So there was a proud moment for residents of Schenectady city and county yesterday.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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