FORT COLLINS, Colo. (CBS4) – As thousands of protesters across many cities in the United States have expressed frustrations surrounding the death of George Floyd, some resulting in riots, the Fort Collins Chief of Police is sharing his advice to departments at the center of protests. Fort Collins Police Chief Jeff Swoboda said his experience navigating a department through the fatal shooting of Decynthia Clements in 2018 enlightened him on how to lead a city though tragedy.
Swoboda was the chief of the Elgin, Illinois police department in 2018 when one of his officers shot and killed Clements on a highway. Clements was evading police in a vehicle. When he vehicle was cornered by law enforcement she set the interior on fire. Eventually, she exited the vehicle with a knife. She was shot and killed.
Soon after the shooting took place, protesters were outside of the Elgin Police Department calling for justice. Instead of simply addressing the media and avoiding the protesters, Swoboda elected to spend his days communicating with those protesting in person.
“There were people in front of the police department who were letting the police department know they weren’t happy. So, I spent every day out in front of the police department talking with people, and most importantly listening,” Swoboda told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas. “There are so many other perspectives out there. The most important thing you can do is listen, hear people and understand. But, not come in defensive and tell people they are wrong.”
Though the alleged murder of George Floyd took place nearly 1,000 miles away from Colorado in Minneapolis, Swoboda was not surprised to see the public protesting in cities across the nation. Some protesters elected to express their frustrations outside of the Fort Collins Police Department peacefully. Others, in Denver, turned their protest to violence by throwing rocks at police, smashing windows, spray painting buildings and damaging cars.
“Police departments are all related,” Swoboda said. “When officers fall short of expectations, whether it is in your area or someplace else, people will hold you accountable.”
Swoboda encouraged police chiefs to get at the front lines of the response, which shows the departments are interested in hearing what the protesters say, not just managing the method their vocalizing it with.
“You’re the police chief. You better be out there. You better be talking to people. And if someone wants to yell about something going on in your police department, it better be you who is out there talking to them,” Swoboda said. “I think what is really important is you provide opportunities for people to release their anxiety.”
Swoboda said honoring the integrity of the investigation must be the top priority. After that, if a department genuinely seeks opportunities to hear the concerns of the community, and provide facts before rumors begin, the situation can better resolve itself. Swoboda said, by following those steps, he felt his former department better navigated the issues of the Clements death.
“I think that made a dramatic effect,” Swoboda said. “How do we listen? How do we change? How do we do better? But, also, how do we explain what actually happened? We are at our best when we are keeping the peace.”