BLM Co-Founder and Lyndhurst Police Chief discuss Systemic Racism, Qualified Immunity at Local Rally for Racial Justice

July 11, 2020 — Lyndhurst, Ohio

On July 11th, nearly one hundred people gathered in Lyndhurst’s Brainard Park for the “Peace Rally for Racial Justice”, organized by Lora Thompson and Rosie Nista. Attendees brought their own lawn chairs, some held signs, and all wore masks and made efforts to social distance.

Deacon Robert Todd was invited up first to say an opening prayer. Todd concluded by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

State Representative Phillip Robinson, Jr. spoke next, opening with the declaration that “we are truly at an inflection point. This time is different.” Robinson went on to state the urgent need to address systemic racism in our justice system, and that he is optimistic this movement will eventually lead to lasting changes, in terms of legislation. Robinson also took a moment to acknowledge the personal impact that George Floyd’s death holds for him and other Black Americans:  “There’s nothing stopping it from being me or my son.”

The next scheduled speaker was Kareem Henton, a founding member of Black Lives Matter Cleveland. Henton commenced his speech by boiling down the message of the movement to a simple phrase:

“If we’re not all free, then nobody’s free.”

Foremost in Henton’s remarks was impressing the urgency of action on the crowd. “A lot of folks love the hashtag, but they don’t love the movement. They don’t love the work.” The work that Henton tasked his overwhelmingly white audience with was learning about the troubled history of policing and prisons, as they relate to slavery. 

Under the 13th Amendment, slavery was abolished "except as a punishment for crime." This led to practices such as convict leasing and the enactment of Black Codes that added more severe penalties for crimes such as vagrancy, loitering, and trespassing. Henton explained how these policies and practices were intended to funnel Black Americans into the penal system as a new vehicle of slavery.

When calling out the lingering effects of slavery and the perpetuation of racism in law enforcement, Henton did not accept ignorance as an excuse. “Someone who’s a victim of it, doesn’t care about your intentions, we’re worried about the effects,” he explained.

Moving into more contemporary concerns, Henton discussed a 2006 FBI report (revisited in detail in this 2017 follow-up investigation by The Intercept), which revealed white supremacists have been deliberately infiltrating law enforcement agencies across the country. These reports have been receiving renewed attention as Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA) is leading the call to release the full, un-redacted report. Torres and 28 other House members are also demanding that the investigation be reopened in order to update the report. “Black people knew before all these reports were released, because they were experiencing it,” Henton reminded the crowd.

Henton returned to his call for people, especially white allies, to do more to support Black Lives Matter than just sharing the hashtag on social media. He emphasized the need to elect representatives who will pass comprehensive legislation that ensures accountability from police, and judicial candidates that do not reflexively shield law enforcement officers from civil or criminal prosecution.

As he finished his speech, Henton re-iterated that everyone must master an understanding of the deep and recent history of racism and policing in America. “There are a lot of folks that want to remain willfully ignorant. We have to be armed and equipped with the information to dispel that,” Henton said. “I’ve got a seven year old at home, and his life depends on it.”

Following Henton’s remarks, Rosie Nista, one of the event organizers, led the crowd in a moment of silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. This was the amount of time that George Floyd was pinned beneath the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin.

Lora Thompson, a co-organizer of the event, then spoke to the crowd about the work she has done as a Democratic central committee member and founder of the Mocha Party, which she started in direct opposition to the Tea party. Thompson reminded the crowd that minorities in America are facing two pandemics: COVID—19 and systemic racism. In closing, Thompson pleaded with the crowd to share her message “that there should be no room in your hearts for hate and racism.”

Francis Miller, a 2nd generation Presbyterian pastor, told a personal story of growing up in Atlanta with parents that were vocal advocates for civil rights. He spoke of the struggle it required from him and his family to identify and counter racism they were unconsciously perpetuating or allowing to go unchallenged in their daily lives. Miller’s parting words to the crowd were “Until we become a truly just, equitable, and safe society we must continue to proclaim that the lives of black, indigenous, and people of color matter.”

The final scheduled speaker was Lyndhurst Chief of Police Patrick Rhode, who was sworn into the office in April of 2019, after serving as executive lieutenant (second in command) for eight years. Rhode did not originally set out to be a police officer. After college he worked for three years with emotionally disturbed and behaviorally handicapped children before switching careers in 1995 at age 25.

Rhode opened his speech by reciting the Lyndhurst police officer’s oath of office, emphasizing three words from the oath toward the end “Fairly, honestly, impartially. No ambiguity there.” 

When addressing the death of George Floyd and other deaths and acts of violence by law enforcement officers against Black Americans across the country, Rhode said “This is unacceptable, and even one such incident is one too many.” 

Rhode’s prepared remarks did not address the structural, systemic problems with police departments and existing laws that were brought up by Henton. Rhode instead expressed frustration that “a few bad officers do not act faithfully… and use their authority inappropriately, or even unlawfully.”  Later in the speech, Rhode again steered clear of acknowledging systemic flaws when he stated that “the actions of a few bad actors, who are poorly trained and managed, do not represent the entire face of law enforcement.”

To Lyndhurst Police Department’s credit, no major incidents of police violence or wrongful deaths could be found looking back in recent history. Rhode said that his department was continually seeking input from the community and looking for “gaps we may need to fill in our training.” The training programs Rhode offered up as solutions focused on de-escalation, reducing bias-based policing, and how to deal with the mentally ill and those suffering from addiction.

Rhode wrapped up by reminding the crowd of outreach programs his department participates in such as “coffee with a cop”, “meet the machines”, “national night out”, and others. He cited these as open forums where community members are free to ask questions and engage in thoughtful discussions about police and city operations. Rhode also regards these events as opportunities for him to evaluate the citizens’ sentiments towards the department’s performance.

The final portion of the rally was dedicated to questions from the attendees. The first question was for Henton to explain what organizers like him mean when they say “Defund the Police.” 

Henton boiled it down to a re-orientation of duties that police should not be involved in—such as a situation involving a mental health crisis, or one that would be better served by a social worker. As Henton went on to explain that reorientation of those duties would necessarily require a reorientation of budgets, Chief Rhode could be seen nodding along in general agreement.

Another attendee asked Henton and Rhode to address the subject of qualified immunity, the doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations. Henton attempted to simplify it by giving the example of being robbed by a police officer, “If I don’t find another case in which an officer was found to be guilty of robbing someone, then I don’t have a case.”

Henton emphasizes that getting rid of this doctrine was an essential step towards restoring accountability for police. He wrapped up his thoughts on the subject by saying “I hope that many officers who wish to distinguish themselves from the bad ones will actually favor getting rid of qualified immunity.”

Rhode complimented Henton on his explanation, saying “I couldn’t have done it better myself.” He then proclaimed that no decent officer should be worried about doing away with qualified immunity.

The Lyndhurst Police Chief then concluded his response by taking a humble tone as he said, “I don’t think much about qualified immunity, folks. And maybe I should know more about it. But I don’t because I like to think I do my job properly.”

Update: On July 15th, Chief Rhode replied to several follow-up questions via email:

Do you have any comment on the lingering traces of police departments' ties to systemic racism that Henton discussed, and the alarming contemporary FBI reports of white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement?

Unfortunately, I don’t have much to offer in this area, as my knowledge base is extremely limited as it relates to the explosion of the prison population in the wake of the 13th Amendment and white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement. Speaking locally, I have not seen ties or hints of systemic racism in Lyndhurst, or in the neighboring police departments we typically work with—white supremacist or otherwise.

When Henton broke down the meaning and mechanics behind the slogan "Defund the Police," you were observed nodding in agreement. He described it as a re-orientation of duties that police should not be entangled with—such as those dealing with people experiencing mental health crises, who would be better served by interacting with a social worker.

I have thought for some time now that police are being taxed way beyond their means and their training; we are being asked to be social workers, parents, medical professionals, educators, etc. It seems counter intuitive to me that a police officer would be better suited to engage someone in the middle of a mental health crisis rather than a formally trained social worker, who would likely have years of training and experience. 911 seems to be the default for folks who don’t know where else to turn when they are in crisis.

With regard to George Floyd and other unjust killings of black Americans, you stated that "This is unacceptable, and even one such incident is one too many." Your disapproval with other officers was apparent when you said "the actions of a few bad actors, who are poorly trained and managed, do not represent the entire face of law enforcement."

If you think other departments are poorly trained and managed, what are you willing and able to do to call them out? Or is some of the problematic training and management due to policy directives from higher up that lead to these disparities of justice and violence?

Again, my thought is that police department problems are not inherently systemic. Poor training and management most always are a result of policy directives and implementation from the higher ups, but sometimes there are just bad cops - just as there are some bad employees in any profession. No amount of training and management can fix that; the selection and/or retention process failed in that regard. Isolated to improper execution, as you suggested.

Brian “BZ” Douglas is an independent, reader-supported journalist, and host of the “BZ Listening” Podcast, covering movement politics and grassroots music.