Last week offered the second anniversary of the killing of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department. Tonight, in a joint project with the Star Tribune, the PBS program “Frontline” will air a powerful documentary on the case, “Police on Trial,” featuring many of the Strib reporters who worked on the story on camera explaining their reporting of the story.
I previewed a mostly-final version of the film. It is powerful and solid, in keeping with Frontline’s long tradition of great work, but will be of special interest to Minnesotans.
I’ll mention a few notes I made while previewing the film, but feel free to stop reading this piece now and just watch the documentary yourself. The material will be familiar to many, but it offers a sober, thorough retelling of what happened.
The film also follows some of the efforts to deal with the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd: the round-the-clock protests; the “abolish the police” movement that arose in its aftermath; the fact that Officer Derek Chauvin had been accused of numerous prior cases of excessive force while making arrests.
Former officer Rich Jackson says on camera that the administration had multiple opportunities to “take care of this” (meaning Chauvin’s behavior) because Chauvin was known to make improper use of force during arrests before the night he killed Floyd.
Jackson, who is Black, tells of previous instances when he complained about excessive use of force, which led only to him acquiring a reputation as a “snitch,” which he found “demoralizing” and which apparently contributed to his decision to leave the force.
“It angered me a lot,” Jackson says, “because I became a police officer to do the right thing, not to hide stuff. I became a police officer to protect our community and make them safe; not to enable bad behavior by officers.”
A white officer named Will Gregory, who agreed to let a Frontline crew ride along with him, said that in the new environment many people treat officers “like we are truly the enemy. We are getting attacked more. We are encountering people resisting arrest more. And we are getting surrounded more [by police critics]. It makes us more on edge and it makes me look at people differently, which I wish I didn’t have to do. But I understand the climate. I understand people’s anger.”
A Black officer, Rick Plunkett, reacted to the Floyd case and the controversy thus: “The black part of me was pissed. The cop part of me saw it as all the more reason why I got into this field, to prevent stuff like that.”
The film ends with the recently released report by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights showing over a recent ten-year period that Minneapolis Police “routinely discriminated against people based on the color of their skin,” and that officers regularly use racist and misogynistic language.
“Police On Trial,” premieres on Tuesday at 9 p.m. central time on PBS stations. It will also be available to stream on PBS.org/frontline and via the PBS app.