Michigan Police Sheriff Who Joined Protests Says George Floyd's Death Was 'Straight-Up Murder'

Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson was standing eye-to-eye from protesters as they marched towards him and his officers on Saturday. Dressed in riot gear, officers had been told to "bring up the line" and Swanson could feel the "temperature" change as demonstrators drew near, making their way to the police department.

"I'm seeing officers with helmets, batons and shields... I had my helmet on and I'm ready," Swanson told Newsweek. But, as the two sides came face-to-face, Swanson couldn't help but wonder: "How did we get here? How did this happen?"

Of course, the county sheriff understood exactly why residents in Flint, Michigan had taken to the streets to make their voices heard. Like countless others across the country and around the world, they had been left devastated by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, despite the man already being handcuffed and pleading for his life.

Held up as a representation of police brutality and systemic racism in policing, Chauvin's actions, which have seen the police officer dismissed from duty and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, ignited protests across the country, with residents in Flint sharing in that grief and anger.

In Swanson's eyes, there is no doubt about how Floyd died: "I don't need to know anything more than 8 minutes and 46 seconds of what [Chauvin] did," he said. "You've got a guy who's handcuffed, who's on the ground, you've got a knee in the back of a neck. That's straight-up murder."

Had Chauvin been an officer within his own department, Swanson said, he might have been fired long ago, given the fact that, according to The Los Angeles Times, he had 18 conduct complaints filed against him, with two resulting in formal reprimands.

"We have fired more people in our office over the last 15 years than most police departments have in a lifetime," he said, stating that his department has little tolerance for officers who do not have the "heart" for policing.

Realizing the message officers were sending standing face-to-face with protesters in riot gear, Swanson decided to do something different. Instead of bringing up the line, he broke it, making his way toward demonstrators in hopes of having a conversation, instead of a confrontation.

After removing his helmet and baton, Swanson could be seen telling demonstrators in video capturing the moment: "The only reason we're here is to make sure that you got a voice. That's it," he said.

Speaking of Chauvin, he said: "Don't think for a second that he represents who these cops are....We go out there to help people, not do this nonsense."

"We want to be with y'all for real so I took the helmet off and laid the batons down," Swanson said. "I want to make this a parade, not a protest."

The words that really "made history in Flint" that night, however, Swanson said, came when he asked demonstrators what they needed officers to do.

Immediately, protesters began chanting: "Walk with us."

That is exactly what Swanson did, walking with community members and having a nearly two-hour conversation about what police could be doing better.

If more law enforcement bodies were willing to entertain the same conversation, he told Newsweek, perhaps cities would not be seeing the chaotic scenes that have been unfolding across the country, with footage showing police firing rubber bullets and teargas into crowds.

Systemic racism in policing, Swanson said is "100 percent" a reality.

"Perception's reality," he said. "And if the people in the community feel it, than who am I to say it's not...I have officers in my career that have been terminated for excessive force. That have been counseled and terminated for racial slurs and racial treatment. For me to say, as a white sheriff, 'that's not true.' That would be ignorant on my part."

"I can tell you that you're seeing across the country an issue that has been on the forefront and continues to come back and the only way we're going to get rid of it and least make a dent in it is doing what we did here and continuing that across the nation. It's got to be on both sides," he said. "Law enforcement has to take the first step."

In Flint, Michigan, Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson has gained international attention after he decided to take off his helmet and lay down his baton to march alongside protesters in a show of solidarity amid demonstrations over the death of George Floyd. Chris Swanson