Sheriff explains why he removed his riot gear to join peaceful protesters

Genesee County Sheriff Christopher Swanson spoke about joining a peaceful protest in Flint, Michigan, in which he walked with demonstrators after taking off his riot gear.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Scott Stump

As protests resulted in violence and arrests in cities across the country over the weekend, one Michigan sheriff made the decision to remove his gear, put down his weapon and walk with demonstrators in an uplifting scene of peace.

Genesee County Sheriff Christopher Swanson spoke with Craig Melvin on TODAY Monday about how he came to embrace and march with a group of people in Flint who were protesting racism and police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

"It was a spontaneous decision, and I'll tell you with all the police agencies there, Flint Township being the lead for the area, it made the most sense that when I saw the crowd and felt the frustration and the fact that we were only accelerating the issue, it was time to take the helmet off, go to the shot caller, the lead organizer, give him a big old fat hug and say, 'What do we need to do?'

"That was the tension breaker, and then the next question was the one that made history."

Swanson can be seen in a video of the moment telling protesters that "these cops love you" and that he wants to make it "a parade and not a protest."

After putting down his weapon, he asks the crowd what they want him to do and they start chanting, "Walk with us!" He then embraced some demonstrators and began marching along with them.

"When I acknowledged that we don't condone (what happened to Floyd), that's not who cops are, the second question is, 'What else do you need?' That's when the crowd shouted, 'Walk with us!'

"The second that turn of events happened when I said, 'Let's walk,' you saw an entire crowd's mindset and heart change because they wanted to be heard," Swanson said. "They were as much a part of that night making history in Flint than anybody else. Now we're day two, no arrests, no fires, no injuries."

Swanson's choice to put down his weapons and riot gear also came in the moment.

"It was probably the worst tactical decision I could make by taking off all of my protection and going into the crowd, but the benefit far outweighed the risk,'' he said. "I'm not trying to be a macho or a hero, I just tell you that that was the best decision to show that I am not going to create a divide, I'm going to show vulnerability and walk in the crowd and make the first move."

Swanson said his "heart breaks" for Minneapolis and the other cities across America that have experienced violence and destruction during protests over Floyd's death.

The scene in Flint was of one of many peaceful protests held across the country as violent protests garnered headlines.

Police chief Joseph Wysocki walked with protesters in Camden, New Jersey, and officers hugged and knelt with demonstrators in Houston, Miami, Kansas City, Missouri, and Shreveport, Louisiana.

"I can't answer what the next best decision except to lay down your arms, that police and protesters have to work together to say, 'Hey let's take a night of calm and find out what's happening, why are we doing this?''' Swanson said.

"Create the conversation that makes the change. Everybody talks about change — change comes with action. I gotta believe that there's folks in those communities that want peace and want action. ... There has to be a first move, there has to be a first step, and that has to come from both sides."