Some police are taking a knee – what does that mean?

Move is seen by some as posturing, crowd control

ALMOST FOUR YEARS AFTER former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick opted to kneel during the national anthem, police officers across the nation are doing the same, including in Massachusetts.

At least a dozen officers took a knee in front of Boston Police headquarters on Tuesday, in what some are calling a show of solidarity with those protesting the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis who died in police custody.

Former Boston city councilor Tito Jackson thanked the police officers for showing solidarity. “They showed restraint and I also want to thank them for taking a knee,” Jackson told WBZ-TV. “It means a lot. It means a lot to us to hear that you care.”

Officer Kim Tavares, one of the Boston police officers who took a knee, said not all police officers think the same. “Black lives do matter,” she said. “When you have stuff like this, you still have to show them love.” In Worcester and New Bedford, some police similarly made the move.

Between Kaepernick and now, there have been plenty of examples of law enforcement deploying excessive use of force in arrests, and subsequently being cleared of wrongdoing. In Fall River last year, officers were shown on video punching the head of a student repeatedly while subduing him. In Cambridge, an independent review found the department acted properly when officers tackled and punched a Harvard University student acting erratically.

Floyd died under the knee of officer Derek Chauvin, pinned while in handcuffs for almost nine minutes. Chauvin, who now faces second-degree murder charges, had 18 complaints filed against him prior to the incident, only two of which involved disciplinary action — a letter of reprimand.

Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham explores what it means for cops to take the knee, and whether it’s a move intended for crowd control, or a genuine gesture. As Abraham notes, Boston hasn’t seen deaths in police custody in a way other cities have, although concerns about alleged excessive force and racial profiling are present.

Terrence Coleman, a man with mental illness, was shot and killed by a Boston officer in 2016 in an altercation that stemmed from his mother calling 911 seeking help to get him out of the cold when he refused to go indoors. In 2019, a Boston police SWAT team allegedly entered the wrong apartment with a battering ram and held a family at gunpoint, handcuffing a mother, father, and 15-year-old daughter. Two smaller children were in the apartment at the time.

Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, called it “a sentimental gesture” that requires being backed up by more codified ones, like improving police accountability and cultural competency. Social media debate over the past two days shows that many protesters are hungry for reform — not photo ops.

In Brockton, officers didn’t take a knee, but Police Chief Emanuel Gomes is promising a public review of the department’s use-of-force policy.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Advocates and legislators are saying that the best fix of all would be to have state and local reform to address police conduct, training, and accountability.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said at a press conference with state and local elected officials of color that he wants municipalities to create their own civil review boards and commissions with subpoena power to investigate allegations of law enforcement wrongdoing. At the same press conference, Rep. Liz Miranda of Boston said she is introducing legislation that would require local police departments to adopt statutory limits on police use of force, including choke-holds like the one that killed Eric Garner in New York City.

There’s still a long way to go. The union representing the officers who took a knee outside Boston Police headquarters slammed Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins for “slandering officers” by saying blacks are being murdered at will by police and their proxy. She later clarified that her comments were directed not at all officers but at the “rogue few who believe they can kill with impunity.”