PHOENIX — Like many police chiefs across the country, Phoenix Chief Jeri Williams has denounced the death of George Floyd, the black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, while at the same time she struggles to support her officers and maintain peace in the midst of the resulting protests.
But Williams comes at the situation from a unique perspective.
She's one of only a handful of black female police chiefs in the nation. And she's a mother with black sons.
She said she saw what happened through both lenses, but her conclusion was the same.
"It's almost disbelief that you're seeing what you're seeing. And then you're yelling at the screen or the monitor, 'What are you doing? Get off of him!'" she said. "It was unbelievably, disgustingly horrific. It hurt my heart."
Unlike other acts of deadly force by police officers, this one has created a pivotal moment in American history, Williams said in an interview with The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network. And she believes it could change the way police officers do their jobs.
"The level of voice that we're seeing now is unlike anything that the world has ever seen, especially in the United States of America," Williams said.
Coming back home
Williams was appointed police chief in 2016, overseeing law enforcement in the nation's fifth-largest city. She was the first woman hired to do the job.
A native Phoenician, Williams began her law enforcement career in the city, where she served for 22 years. She was police chief in Oxnard, California, for five years before becoming chief in Phoenix.
Her sons are 26 and 27. One, Alan Williams, is a professional basketball player and former Phoenix Suns player.
After handling several days of protests, Williams' voice Tuesday morning was hoarse as she sipped a Starbucks medicine ball mixture of tea, lemon and honey.
She said she has talked with her sons about Floyd's death.
"They were baffled and in disbelief," she said. "It's unreal and unbelievably disgusting."
Alan Williams, who often retweets his mom, posted several tweets this week discussing the protests.
"Stand for what you believe in and exercise your right to protest! Please do so peacefully! Let’s not let our message be diluted by violent and criminal acts even tho violent and criminal acts are the reason for our pain and anger! We need to be heard! Let’s keep each other safe!" he wrote in one tweet.
Phoenix's own history
Chiefs before Williams have wrestled with high-profile police shootings. For example, the killing in 2014 of a woman suffering from mental illness drew a massive outcry. And use of force has been an issue for Williams since her first day on the job.
On the day of her swearing in, about 30 protesters carried white crosses and black coffins during a demonstration against police brutality. One protester said she looked forward to seeing what Williams would do to decrease police shootings and complaints against officers.
"A lot of times I think people want to nail it down to 'Let's build a relationship,' but for us it's beyond that," Viri Hernandez said in 2016. "We want to know what policies and practices she's going to change."
The death of an individual during an interaction with police is something that religious leaders, activists and some city leaders have said has also occurred too many times in Phoenix — both before Williams took over, and since.
For years, activists have decried the high rate of police shootings in Phoenix.
Williams said she recognizes that the anger from protesters in Phoenix also stems from instances of fatal police shootings locally.
"Yes, people are angry. People are frustrated. People are beside themselves. People don't want the police department funded," she said.
She said the Phoenix Police Department has adopted changes in its effort to be more transparent, including outfitting officers with body cameras. But, she said, the department can't make policy changes on its own because her officers have to follow the law.
She did not mention any specific changes she would like to see happen going forward to help prevent another death such as Floyd's.
She said community members asking for change need to understand that there are rules and processes that need to be followed in order to change any policy. She said people who want specific changes need to contact their elected officials and tell them what they want.
"I'm not going to say what policies or rules I want changed. I really want to hear that from the community," Williams said. "I really want to see what the rub is for them so we can work through the process of making whatever adjustments we need to while at the same time making sure we're in the confines of the law, policy and procedure."
Phoenix makes changes
It's been a year since the Phoenix case of Dravon Ames and his family made national news.
A white Phoenix officer, Christopher Meyer, who has since been fired, pointed a gun at Ames, who is black, threatening to shoot him in front of his then-pregnant fiancee and children.
As a result of this case and a record number of police shootings for the department in 2018, Williams has implemented changes.
"We've changed our tactics," she said. "We've changed our training. We've become more transparent than this police department has ever been."
For example, the department has started to collect data each time an officer points a firearm at a person. Preliminary analysis of that data indicated those incidents have disproportionately involved black people compared with their population in the city.
Phoenix police have begun publishing police shooting data on the department's website and releasing summary videos, including on-body camera footage, of police shootings.
The Phoenix City Council has also approved creating a civilian oversight office, which will independently investigate public complaints of police use-of-force cases and shootings.
'Lead with heart'
These are all changes Williams said she welcomes and that help provide transparency. She said she doesn't mind the scrutiny.
"I've said this before on tape, and off tape, that the Phoenix Police Department isn't afraid to be observed by outsiders," she said. "We welcome the opportunity to share and show how amazing we are."
She pointed to three police officers who took a knee along with protesters during the fifth night of protests on Monday night, saying that sentiment reflects the beliefs of the majority of the police department.
"We lead with heart," she said.
Kneeling has become a symbol against racial inequality and police violence. The action was started by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was widely criticized for kneeling during the national anthem before football games.
"In my opinion, just a pure show of what my agency is. It's a pure show of peace. I couldn't tell you that any of those folks who knelt yesterday had the idea in their mind that at 8 o'clock last night that they were going to kneel," Williams said. "At that moment and at that time with that crowd, it just felt right to them. And it showed support."
She said that protest ended peacefully.
"People got to exercise their voice. We always talk about exercising their voice and having the public have the right to do that and doing it safely," she said. "If there are more protests, it would be great for them all to end the same way."
She said tear gas and pepper spray have been used "when we were met with a level of force where people are throwing rocks, bottles, fireworks and things catch things on fire."
"What we saw last night where the crowd was exercising its voice, the crowd may be loud, nobody was throwing things at police officers," she said. "Any time we have to meet things with a level of force, that's always a challenge."
Williams said despite the arrests made this week, she's still meeting with community members, answering residents' phone calls and having conversations about moving forward.
Williams said she is worried about future protests, including when Floyd is buried.
"We don't know when this is going to end," she said.
While some applauded the three officers' actions, others have said it doesn't erase the past violent actions that some officers have taken against people.
Williams said she recognizes that moving forward, hard conversations need to happen between residents and police leadership.
"We are constantly engaged with our community. The path and the way forward is having those conversations that are not comfortable, that are rough, that are challenging," she said. "But we have to listen to one another."
She said it's not an "us vs. them" conversation, but must be a "we" conversation.
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