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A Black Veteran Law Enforcement Officer Reflects On Black Lives Matter And 'Defund the Police'

Delrish Moss Herald file photo.jpeg
Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald
Delrish Moss is a former major in the Miami Police Department. After leading an effort to reform policing in Ferguson, Mo., he's back in South Florida — this time, working to dismantle systemic racism at Florida International University.

Delrish Moss has a new assignment: dismantling systemic racism at Florida International University.

For the second time in recent years, Delrish Moss finds himself trying to bridge the chasm between two groups of people at odds: Black Americans and the police.

Moss belongs to both communities.

Four years ago, he left the Miami Police Department, where he was a major, to help reform policing in Ferguson, Mo. He became the police chief there after a white officer, Darren Wilson, killed a Black man, Michael Brown, in 2014.

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Moss, who returned to South Florida last year and now serves as a captain with Florida International University’s police department, has agreed to take on an additional leadership role at another moment of civil unrest following police killings and assaults of Black people: He is one of three leaders chairing the university’s “equity action initiative,” an effort to dismantle systemic racism at the school.

Moss recently spoke with WLRN about his new position at FIU, the Black Lives Matter Movement and activists’ call to “defund the police.” Here is an excerpt of that conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity:

WLRN: What do you want to see change at FIU to make it a more inclusive and just place, especially for Black students, faculty and staff?

MOSS: We can invite as many people to the table as we want, but if they don't feel like they can eat or have a portion of what is being offered, then they don't stay at the table. What I want to see change — not just at FIU, but period — I think I want to see a situation where people not only feel included, but they also have this sense of belonging.

Do you feel that way at FIU?

I do. But, you know, I think the vast difference with me is, I come here with 36 years of law enforcement experience. I'm from South Florida, and I've been such a part of the fabric of South Florida for so many years. For me, that challenge doesn't exist as much as it may for a young student who's just starting out.

As a Black man and as a law enforcement officer, how have you been processing the death of George Floyd and the other killings and assaults on Black people that have sparked the recent protests for racial justice?

What I think is positive about this is that people from all walks of life, from all stations of life, are starting to really examine their role, what they can do going forward. Because, you know, when we had situations in Miami, it made some changes in Miami. When we had some situations in Ferguson, it made some changes in Ferguson. But I think that what we're seeing unique about this is that everyone is having the conversation. I don't think you can escape it at this point.

Why do you think that is? Why do you think the Black Lives Matter movement seems to be resonating with so many more people — in big cities and small towns, people with lots of different life experiences and from different races? Why is it having this impact now?

Everyone was at home, because of COVID. Everyone saw the video of George Floyd. And much like the Civil Rights movement with regard to Martin Luther King [Jr.] and having television on his side, I think that it put in the living rooms of people who hadn't even thought about these things kind of a real-life view. I think all of us who watched that video were horrified by what we saw. People realize that while we've come a long way, there's still a long, long way for us to go.

"We can invite as many people to the table as we want, but if they don't feel like they can eat or have a portion of what is being offered, then they don't stay at the table."

So one of the main demands of the Black Lives Matter movement around the country is "defund the police." And that's more nuanced than it sounds. Some protesters want to get rid of police altogether, but most people are saying we should spend less money on cops and more money instead on social services like mental health care, housing and education.

They argue that would make people's lives better so there wouldn't be as much crime or as much need for police. And they say police are being asked to do too much that they're not trained to do, like respond to someone having a mental health crisis. I wonder what your reaction is to that.

I think it was a brilliant strategy in terms of getting the attention of people. I think that even police officers were shocked by the name early on, and it forced us to actually start to look at some alternatives to some of the things that we're doing. It caused us to examine ourselves or else be abolished.

But I really think that the true answer is not in defunding police. I think that we should be creating other social services that respond to things that we're not prepared to respond to. Police officers, police chiefs were saying that for years before we started talking about defunding police — talking about mental health professionals helping to respond, talking about other services doing their part.

And while I think we should build those things, I don't think that we should defund police to build those things, because they're not up and running yet. You've got to build it first before you start replacing what you have.

You say those things aren't up and running yet. But, of course, there are lots of mental health resources available. There are some communities that have less and some that have more. But I think there's certainly an infrastructure already of social workers and psychologists and different people that could help respond to situations.

Right. But one of the things that you've got to realize about a lot of these situations where we've had a person in mental health crisis — they've been through systems many, many times before it boiled down to the police having to respond.

So if those other social services are up and working — and working appropriately — would there have actually been a need for police response? When I was a police officer on the midnight shift at 3 in the morning, I could take you to a mental health facility, but there was no one to respond.

And while there is infrastructure, that infrastructure certainly has to be improved upon. Because while the scaffolding is there, the buildings aren't built.

When you saw the uprisings happening in the city of Miami this spring — where you used to be a major in the police department — and you saw officers using tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters, how did you feel and what did you think as you watched that happen?

Chief Timoney, John Timoney, when he was here, one of the things he always said was: If you get to the point where you have to use tear gas, you've lost. And so for me, it was disheartening to have to see that.

But I think at the end of the day, there's still a police responsibility to dealing with what is happening. Not everyone is a peaceful protester, and that's unfortunate.

So you went to Ferguson, Mo, after Michael Brown was killed there by a white police officer in 2014. That was one of the earlier events that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement nationwide. What did you learn in Ferguson that you would want other law enforcement officers around the country to know — about how to be better police and how to have healthier relationships with their communities, especially Black people in those communities?

When I got there, they protested me. When I left, some of the same protesters actually still call me on a pretty regular basis. And I've been invited to graduations, weddings, funerals and the likes. We have to build relationships.

One of the first moves that we made in Ferguson — we actually did something as simple as going door to door and actually introducing not only myself, but my command staff and the police officers working in a particular neighborhood, to the residents of that neighborhood. Having, just, conversations. Not, you call the police, and there's trouble. And so we show up. While it seemed trite, it paid off tremendously, because it was no longer yelling at this person across a line. But it was actually conversations with people to build good dialogue.

And I don't want to take great credit for that, because I learned that under Chief Timoney while in Miami. We did neighborhood walks — you know, building those relationships, because that's what this is. Ultimately, it's about relationships and relating.

How has the Black Lives Matter movement changed in your eyes, from Michael Brown to George Floyd to now?

While there are still some who are resistant, people who are not Black now are really starting to get the message that "Black Lives Matter" doesn't mean that other lives don't matter. It doesn't mean that other people aren't important, shouldn't be valued.

What it does mean, though, is that people who have been on the bad side of the system, if you will, with regard to treatment and equality, also are important, and they matter.