Black cop in Durham reflects on personal impact of George Floyd’s killing, reckoning that followed

Durham Regional Police Sgt. Keith Richards knows his fellow officers aren’t comfortable having public-facing conversations about racism and use of force. 

But he doesn’t harbour those particular concerns.

“I am an open book,” Richards, who is Black, told CBC Metro Morning host Ismaila Alfa. “That’s why I’m here.”

More than a year after George Floyd was murdered by former police officer Derek Chauvin — who has since been convicted for his murder —  Richards sat down with Alfa to reflect on what’s changed personally and professionally for the Whitby, Ont. cop.

“It was an unfortunate circumstance,” Richards says, but “I will say there is some good that’s come out of it.”

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Floyd’s killing sparked an international reckoning over racism and use of force that Richards credits not just with starting an important public conversation, but also with validating “a lot of concerns that the Black community had.”

Richards is confident he would never find himself in the same position as Chauvin because he says he tries to be more attentive to the safety of people in his custody.

“When I see that video I think less about police and more about humanity,” he says.

He acknowledges some of the push back from law enforcement officers who have defended Chauvin’s actions on the basis that Floyd had drugs in his system and a pre-existing medical condition. (The prosecution’s medical experts were quite firm: a person subjected to the same police actions who did not have those pre-existing conditions would also have died).

Even in Durham Regional Police, Richards says, hard conversations have been had “with our own people.”

“I think that most officers want to see the good in policing, as they should, and I think that they’re looking for reasons to attribute his death beyond another officer’s actions,” he says.

“But seeing the good sometimes means you’re not seeing the reality.”

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Richards remembers his own introduction to the police. He was eight or nine years old, growing up in Pickering, and his mother sat him down to say if he saw the police he should run.

“I never forgot that sentence,” he says.

It was a frame of mind that made sense for his mother, Richards says, since she was parenting in the same generation that Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for Black people’s civil rights.

But for him, that mindset would soon be overridden by powerful interactions with cops when Richards was a teenager. He says they would pull him over just to chat and say hello when he was riding his bike and later, once he got his license, in his car.

“They knew my name and they used to call me Bubba,” he remembers.

“That experience changed how I perceive police, which is one of the reasons why I’m such a big advocate of our members investing in young people… because I’m a product of that success,” Richards says.

Still, Richards acknowledges it isn’t as simple as it can sound: “It takes years sometimes to win over trust and it can take seconds to destroy it.”

Ultimately, he says, he’s keen to open the door for more conversations. Out of the last year of reflection, he sees a need to demystify police operations for the general public and to help officers understand the fear many Black people experience interacting with the police.

And while he doesn’t see the value in defunding the police, as many advocates have called for, he says he would welcome a conversation about what aspects of policing might be better handled by community organizations.

“We have to do right by the community.”

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