The most significant American death in this pandemic year may turn out to have had nothing to do with COVID. It was the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, a slow-motion suffocation in front of numerous witnesses on a busy Minneapolis street. It was perpetrated by a white police officer who put his knee in the back of a prone man’s neck and calmly let a life slip away, as a bystander’s cellphone camera rolled.

This was not the first time that a killing by a police officer of an unarmed Black person was captured on video. It was not even the first such case of 2020. But no one could claim that Floyd’s life mattered to the four officers, who stood by as he begged for his life. This was the video that unleashed some of the biggest street protests in history, with marchers in every U.S. city and around the world, demanding an end to the kind of policing that was so tragically on display.

We are in the midst of a national debate about police reform, a conversation that should involve the people who have experienced abusive treatment on the streets as well as police officers who don’t want to be associated with what we saw in the Floyd video. Police say they have complicated jobs dealing with society’s failed responses to issues such as substance abuse and lack of access to mental health treatment. Some officers use excessive force, they say, but those are egregious acts committed by a few bad apples.

To be part of the police reform conversation, police officers and their advocates should stop going all out defending the “bad apples.” And they should be willing to acknowledge that systemic racism exists and needs to be weeded out of the law enforcement institutions that they want to preserve.

But that’s not the direction chosen by the Maine Association of Police, the state’s largest police union, with about 1,000 officer members. It is promoting a new legal defense fund, which will go to defend officers who will be charged with excessive force in the future.

Called The Sentinel Program, the fund will be used to defend officers without knowing any circumstances of their cases. Instead of engaging with communities to develop a new kind of policing, the MAP is signaling its intention to prevent change by winning in court.

Ironically, it was the George Floyd case that inspired the program. Paul Gaspar, the group’s executive director, said that the swift criminal charges brought against the four officers involved in Floyd’s death made the organization’s leaders concerned that public pressure to prosecute officers accused of crimes could reach Maine. Rather than work with its membership to prevent the excessive uses of force that could lead to criminal charges or lawsuits, the organization wants to wait until after the incident occurs and protect the officer involved from accountability.

The blanket defensiveness behind this program sends a message: Members of the organization don’t think anything is wrong with the current system of policing, and any future accusations of excessive force will be unwarranted.

That’s the wrong stance when police reform is on the agenda in Augusta and Washington. Maine police officers should not shut themselves out of this important debate.

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