Sputnik has talked to Gwen Gunter, a retired lieutenant with the Minneapolis Police Department and a member of a black police officers’ association, to find out more about what happened to Jacob Blake, as well as about the nationwide protests against racism, and calls made by some demonstrators to "defund the police" in the wake of the killing of another African-American man, George Floyd, on 25 May by law enforcement.
Sputnik: Your friend's son was shot by the police in Wisconsin. Has the family been provided with information regarding the situation? Can you elaborate on what happened?
Gwen Gunter: You asked me to talk about my friend’s son shooting, Jacob Blake, in Wisconsin. I can’t really elaborate on what’s happening because they haven’t really released much of the information. At first glance, the video is very disturbing, and in my mind, I’m wondering if they thought he had a weapon in the car, why they allowed him to make it to the car before using some other non-lethal ways to stop him.
It didn’t appear that he posed any imminent threat of death or bodily harm to them, so it doesn’t appear that the shooting was justified at this point. I’m anxious to get more information and to hear what the officer was thinking when he pulled the trigger.
Sputnik: Wisconsin's Division of Criminal Investigation has not yet released basic information about the shooting. How would you evaluate this?
Gwen Gunter: It took them several days to release the public information, which is very minimal, and that really concerned me. Generally, we see that when, for lack of a better phrase, when organisations are circling the wagons sort of in a defensive posture. So, it was really disturbing that it took so long just to release that public information, especially with a video out there. If they had contrary information, you know, we sort of felt like it should have been released immediately to calm emotions.
Sputnik: During the last three months, we've heard numerous calls to "defund the police". Do you personally support this idea? In your view, what is it that the protesters want to achieve with their calls to "defund the police”?
Gwen Gunter: You know, that’s a difficult question. I think, when I first heard the calls to defund the police, I was very defensive and totally against that. And as I heard more information about what defunding means and how it’s been used, and other things besides defunding the police – for instance, someone had mentioned to me that the government has been defunding the schools for generations – I started to think differently about it and as people talked about re-proportioning the funds to organisations that would help the community more.
I started to soften to that call, however, I don’t like the terminology “defund the police” because what it conjures up in the imagination as far as operating a municipality without a police department. You know, that sends messages to the people who victimize the community that there will be no one there to stand in between them and their prey. So, I think that there are ways to talk about that, and I think that that is very reasonable.
For years I’ve heard police officers complain that “we seem to be the do-all when someone doesn’t know who to call, they call the police; and we’re expected to resolve issues that we have no expertise in”. I hear that complaint a lot; I heard it a lot when I was a police officer, I hear it a lot now. I’m softening to that, and I think that if they don’t want police officers to respond to mental health crises, for example, I think that’s a really good idea to have social workers on hand and answering calls.
Although that may not be the greatest example because mental health issues can turn violent very quickly. But for instance, parents often call the police when their kid doesn’t want to listen to them, and that needs to stop. Hands down, that should not be the case. We shouldn’t be bringing an officer with a weapon to deal with a kid not wanting to get out of bed and going to school. And I’ve been called to homes for that reason, and that’s just ridiculous.
Once I got a call that someone didn’t get their correct food in a drive through and they called the police. That sort of thing is just ridiculous. That’s my feeling about that. I think that there needs to be conversations about re-appropriating money to different social services so that police officers don’t have to be called out to handle things that aren’t criminal in nature.
Sputnik: What consequences might the measures have for public safety? What kind of public safety reforms do you consider necessary, and why?
Gwen Gunter: I really think that we need to think about how we police and why we police the way we police, because I have a feeling that some of the answers to some of the questions will be, well we’ve always done it this way. And that doesn’t necessarily make it right. And we also need to understand that just because something is legal doesn’t make it right, slavery was legal. There were a lot of things that have happened in the past that were not taken very seriously by law enforcement, lynchings for instance.
There is appetite and room for reviews of how we do, what we do, and why, and can we do it differently. And when we start to do it differently we need to, as municipalities and governments, need to understand that whatever we come up with needs to be flexible; and that just because we’ve changed that and started to do it this way and it works initially, there may come a point in time where it isn’t working any longer. Do we need to adjust it? Do we need to throw it away? Do we need to add something? Do we need to take something away?
I really think that as we have these discussions that we need to think about the impact and the unintended consequences of adjustments that we might make. I used to be asked all the time when I was on the street “why do you guys carry guns? Why do you carry live ammo? Why don’t you carry rubber bullets like they do in England? Why don’t you do things like that?” and my response was always “if you can convince the bad guys to carry rubber bullets, then we’ll carry rubber bullets”.
But I no longer feel that this is an acceptable answer. I think that we should talk about it. I’m not saying that we should do it; I’m saying it should be open for discussion. I think police officers should have lots of things at their disposal; every officer on the street doesn’t have the access to simunitions, to less lethal rounds, maybe that’s something we should look into, carrying weapons that have rubber bullets.
In certain situations, maybe someone should be armed. Whenever there’s a taser being deployed, we require an officer to have cover with a lethal weapon just in case. Maybe we should use simunitions in that regard where there’s someone else with backup with live ammo but we’re going to try and handle the situation with less lethal. I’m not saying that that is something that we should do, but I think it should be a discussion.
This whole thing, I think when you contacted me it was more about George Floyd, and I think that the reason why George Floyd has galvanised the world is because it was so blatantly the wrong thing to do. In a lot of situations, even with Jacob we don’t know what really happened yet; so as angry as we are, we don’t have all the information yet, so there’s still a part of my police officer DNA that says “get all the information”.
I don’t think it played out the way that it should have played out, but I want all the information, whereas with George Floyd for longer than 8 minutes, he constricted his blood flow to his brain and that was just flat out wrong. I mean there was just no getting around that. So, I think that that’s why so many people spoke out and continue to speak out, and are really at a place where they can say “you know what, maybe I’ve been looking at this whole thing wrong, maybe I don’t agree with every tactic that #blacklivesmatter uses, but I’m starting to understand a little bit more than I had before”.
And that covers a lot, it’s not just me as a black woman but me as a police officer, me as a lesbian, me as a mother, me as pet owner. I work really hard in my daily life to not be a stereotypical anything. And I understand the people who are “okay, that’s not my job to help you figure out what you can learn about, it’s not my job to educate you”, and there are days where I feel that way, I’m tired and exhausted because being a black lesbian female retired cop is exhausting; and having to do that and be that is exhausting.
However, I still feel that is necessary because the more we are not what they think we are the harder it is for them to say “see, I told you”. I think I get that from my father, because my father was a very proud man and he worked several jobs and was always working hard and really instilled in us that there’s no better way to prove a person wrong than to put in a hard day’s work, and to be willing to put in a hard day’s work and be willing to work harder than the guy next to you.
He was like they might be able to say it but it won’t be true, and you know that it’s not true. So that lives in me and that’s sort of the attitude that I wake up and try to exemplify every day. But it is exhausting. I do not condone the burning and the looting and the negative stuff that’s been associated with the protests, however it does bother me when people focus in on the negative as opposed to focusing in on the message, because it’s frustrating.
It’s frustrating to feel like you’re being the example of a model citizen but being always treated like a second-class citizen. And I understand that feeling. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to my family members, and it’s embarrassing, it’s demeaning, it’s insulting. You know, when I’m on an elevator and I go out of my way to make white women feel comfortable being on the elevator with me, and it happens every time when I’m on an elevator and a white woman steps on to the elevator. I’m in a position where I feel like I have to make them feel comfortable, especially if they’re alone. And it’s exhausting.
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