‘I kneeled’: During raucous protest, Detroit police deputy chief kneels with protesters

A Detroit police deputy chief grew emotional Tuesday as he spoke of a powerful moment during the city’s protests as demonstrations continue nationwide. 

Deputy Chief Todd Bettison spoke at the city’s press conference addressing the current situation in the city and shared his personal perspective.

On Sunday, he said he walked from headquarters outside and saw protesters lined up on the front line, and across from them -- the department’s mobile field force unit lined up in opposition. A commander was walking back and forth.

“I assessed the situation and I said, this is not good. It’s not good. And I'm like, I have to do something, we have to -- I didn't want any more violence” he said.

So he said he walked to the protesters -- many of them angry -- and listened to what they had to say.

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“Kneel with us. Kneel for George Floyd. Just, if you just please kneel with us, we will leave. Just please kneel. And I said I don’t want any violence. And I said, these officers, all of us, our heartaches. I said I was disgusted by what I saw,” he said.

Bettison said from a tactical position, the men and women can’t kneel.

“I said, but as the highest-ranking person here -- I will kneel on behalf of the department, the city of Detroit, and all of our citizens, everybody. I will kneel. And I did. It was emotional,” he said.

The deputy chief said there are protesters there for the right cause and there are criminals intent on causing harm -- and they’re a small percentage. He said he was addressing that large majority.

“We, as Detroit police officers, we feel what you feel. I expressed that chief craig called it for what it was -- the first police chief in the nation -- said it was murder. When I saw it, I knew it was murder. The first day. The mayor called it out as murder. We were the first in the nation.”

“I didn’t understand why the protesters were angry at us Detroit police when we work so hard in the community to connect. I tried to relay that to them - that we’re not the problem, we’re here with you. We don’t want to be in this place, this space, but I understand. The anger, for what happened to George Floyd. So with that being said, I kneeled.”

Bettison said that’s the moment someone from the crowd tossed something at one of their officers. Tear gas was deployed. Protesters dispersed. 

“My heart was heavy. Because I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to.”

The deputy chief grew emotional at this point in the story.

“Chief came and I didn’t even tell him I kneeled. It wasn’t about that. It was about the love I have for the city, and I didn’t know how my peers would react to me kneeling. But what I want everybody to know is that I’ve got nothing but love for white officers, black officers, everybody, thanking me for kneeling to support George Floyd. Nothing but thanks.”

For the past four nights, protesters have flooded the streets of Detroit. While some demonstrations have led to some destruction and arrests, Monday night’s protests were largely peaceful. 

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Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said during the 10-mile march through the city no tear gas was deployed, no rocks were thrown, no one was attacked. Community leaders confronted those looking to cause damage.

“It was such a message of Detroit pride," he said.

Gripped by protests throughout the weekend, Detroit Police officers spent nights on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday deploying crowd control tactics and arresting well over 200 people during a bubbling period of racial tensions that looks more like 1968 and 2020.

On Friday, Duggan said 65% of people who were arrested were not residents of Detroit. On Saturday, 75% of those arrested also did not live in the city. The out-of-city and out-of-state makeup of the unrests, which tended to become more violent as the night grew later, eventually prompted Duggan and Police Chief James Craig to order a citywide curfew starting at 8 p.m.

Craig and Duggan both believe the vast majority of protesters that turned out over the weekend were there with good intentions. It's why the looting and rioting that some cities have experienced haven't been as severe in Detroit, Duggan said. But for those with more malevolent intentions, top public officials believed the troublemakers were organized and communicating with each other.