Sterling Heights mayor, police react to Floyd death

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published June 5, 2020


STERLING HEIGHTS — Sterling Heights city and police leaders expounded on what the death of a Minnesota man while under arrest by Minneapolis police — and the uproar that followed it — means to governance, law enforcement and race relations going forward.  

George Floyd died while in police custody in Minneapolis May 25. Floyd had been arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 in a purchase. An officer, Derek Chauvin, was shown on camera holding his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes while Floyd, already handcuffed, pleaded for his life.

Protests, some peaceful and some mixed with violence, arose in cities across the country. Chauvin was eventually arrested and charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. On June 3, three other officers involved in Floyd’s arrest were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

A protest was slated to take place on Hall Road June 6, after press tume.

In a May 29 Facebook post, Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor said he hopes for healing for the country and justice for Floyd.

“A police officer has to respect the people, communities and neighborhoods he serves. If he doesn’t, then this is the result,” Taylor wrote. “If you respect the humanity of the people you serve, you wouldn’t crush their neck with your knee while they’re begging for air.

“If you view the person you’re taking into custody as an extension of your family, you would treat them like you treat family. This is how I want our SHPD to view us — not as adversaries — but as friends and neighbors.”

Taylor said the Sterling Heights Police Department’s Community Outreach and Engagement program is designed to get officers to become liaisons and familiar faces in the community. He said the CORE program also shows to police that “we are a community of neighborhoods and people with dignity, humanity, and even in our worst moments, we are worthy of respect.”

“In my heart, I believe that every police officer serving the residents of Sterling Heights would sacrifice their life to save one of ours,” Taylor said. “I don’t believe any one of them believes that we are not entitled to dignity and respect.

“I am proud of the incredible work that our SHPD does to not only protect us, but to learn about us; to learn the nuances in different neighborhoods; to get to know our streets and neighborhoods and businesses; and to keep us one of the safest cities in the county.”

In an email, Chief Dale Dwojakowski said that what happened to Floyd was “inexcusable,” adding that police tactics portrayed in the video are not taught at any police academy nor in any departmental training.

“Our residents demand high standards from their Sterling Heights Police Officers, which includes regular ongoing training and utilizing the most current equipment and technology,” the chief said. “Proper training and equipment is essential, but even more important is the legitimacy a police department receives when they make efforts to be accessible and open with all members of the community.

“I take pride as the chief of police of one of the best departments in the state because of our community policing, relationships with our houses of worship and all of the events that we participate in with our different cultural and ethnic partners throughout the year.”

Dwojakowski said another way that the Police Department seeks to represent its community is through recruiting efforts and outreach programs designed to appeal to diverse candidates who normally might have not considered becoming an officer.

“There is no overnight fix, but our department is constantly reviewing how to provide the best and equitable service to every resident, regardless of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background,” he said. “Police departments can always do better and we will.”

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights’ Interim Director Mary Engelman said “token measures and lip service” will not be enough to end the sort of incidents like Floyd’s death.

“We call on leaders at all levels to come together in a substantive way to address the systemic racism and bias, both explicit and implicit, that leads to tragedies like the ones we’ve witnessed in Minnesota, in Georgia and in Kansas in the last few weeks alone,” she said.

“Our shared sin is not just that racial police abuses happen, but that they continue to happen. We must do everything in our power to say, ‘This ends now.’”

She said peaceful protest and civil disobedience are important and powerful, but “violent civil unrest only makes matters worse for those who must live with the problem every day.”

“We will never right these wrongs by hurting innocents and burning our cities,” she added. “The question everyone should be asking is, ‘What can I do to help make things better?’ The answer may involve protest but must also include other concrete, positive actions.”

On June 3, the Sterling Heights Police Department published on Facebook a letter that Dwojakowski sent to business owners. The letter informed them that a public march was scheduled along M-59/Hall Road from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. June 6, starting at Schoenherr Road and ending at Macomb Community College.  He added that police expected the march to be peaceful.

The letter said it was up to businesses to decide whether they want to stay open or to close during the event.

“It does offer some assistance to the police to be closed because we know what the person’s purpose is once we ask them or tell them a store is closed,” Dwojakowski wrote. “We also ask that if you see anything suspicious around your place of business to contact the police immediately.”

Black Lives Matter’s Detroit chapter did not return a request for comment by press time.