In his cellphone video, the Black man wears a hoodie and a backward baseball cap. Behind him is a placard that reads “Compton.” Somberly, he reflects on the momentous death of George Floyd days before.
“Is this about race or is this about training?” he asks. “I personally believe this may have played out differently if George was not Black. But I believe more that if the crowd around him were not Black, it most certainly would have played out differently.”
Due to “ego and pride,” he surmises, the Minneapolis Police officers involved in Floyd’s death “didn’t want to seem inferior (by) conceding to those around them.”
“They would have taken that as a loss,” he continues. “For that moment in time, they didn’t think about the worst-case scenario and how it would affect their family or their job or even Mr. Floyd.”
After the 10-minute monologue, the video suddenly cuts to the same man – now crisply dressed in a police uniform. A framed photo of a Tustin police car replaces the Compton sign.
He then introduces himself: “I’m Sgt. Robert Nelson.”
The contrast in images might strike some as a lesson in preconceived notions.
Nelson never intended for his video to go beyond his circle of friends and family, much less land on the Tustin Police Department’s social media page. In fact, he wonders aloud if he is breaking protocol by candidly recording his thoughts on racism and police brutality.
“I would love to do this in full uniform,” he tells his viewers. “But because of certain policies, and me sharing my personal opinion, it’s just safer this way.”
But when Tustin Police Chief Stu Greenberg got wind of the video, he not only accepted it, he promoted it.
Greenberg used the video – despite its uncomfortable content – to launch the department’s new online community outreach program, “It Starts With Us.”
“I was completely impressed that Rob was willing to put his neck out there and share, from his own unique perspective, something so important to him,” Greenberg said.
Nelson grew up in Compton, where he still visits his mom frequently. Four years ago, when he was named Tustin Police Department’s “Officer of the Year,” Nelson recalled watching friends join gangs.
“Some of them are still there – and still in gangs,” Nelson said in the 2016 interview. “A lot of my neighborhood friends have died, or they’re in jail.”
Nelson, 34, said he made the video for his “Compton folks” – who, based on both perception and experience, harbor distrust for law enforcement.
“Chief Greenberg texted me, ‘I’m proud of you,’” Nelson said. “I thought, ‘Oh, man.’ I didn’t understand how it got to him so quickly. But he was very complimentary. That means a lot to me.”
High school classmate Craig Woods said that he and Nelson were part of a “core group of friends” who stayed out of trouble by concentrating on education and sports. Even so, Woods said, Nelson – who “always carried himself with old-fashioned, even-keeled dignity” – encountered run-ins with police.
“He was the first of us to drive, so the first of us to get pulled over for no reason,” said Woods, who still lives in Compton.
Still, Nelson’s buddies never questioned his career choice. “He wanted to be part of the change,” Woods said.
Now a legislative analyst for Los Angeles County, Woods said Nelson made the video at the request of friends grappling with Floyd’s death: “You know the saying, ‘What would Jesus do?’ We were, like, ‘What would Rob do?’
“When I saw how long the video was, I thought, ‘Rob really has something to get off his chest,’” Woods said. “He is a man who normally says a lot in just a few words.”
Nelson says in his video: “I’m currently a sergeant, and I’ve always been Black. My foundation as the person I am today comes from urban Black America. What I’ve seen growing up is more traumatic than what I’ve seen as a police officer for almost six years.”
He then implores police agencies to practice a more holistic approach to hiring “without lowering their standards.”
“The police force should try to employ people who look and have similar experiences to the community they serve,” he says. “You cant keep hiring these cookie-cutter people with perfect backgrounds who never … overcame challenges (that led to) minor issues in their backgrounds.”
Greenberg agreed with Nelson on that point. “People with life experiences may hit speed bumps along the way,” he said. “Historically, we carefully paint a line, and if you cross over that line you cannot come onboard. But it’s not always about being perfect. It’s about learning from mistakes.”
As for the riots that have erupted at some protests against police brutality, Nelson takes a nuanced stance, hinting in his video that he understands how anger and desperation can spark a range of reactions.
“I’m not going to tell anyone how they should express their frustrations,” he says. “Rioting in African American culture goes as far back as Nat Turner revolting against slave traders… I’m reluctant to say that, I get it.”
But, Nelson adds, “I’ll be sure to teach my kids that there are other ways to effect change. I despise the destruction of your own neighborhood and the devastation it causes to business owners… That behavior comes with consequences. It gives more fuel and ammunition to conservative Americans to paint you as self-destructive creatures.”
And, Nelson warns, looting and violence ultimately can perpetuate overreaction by police, providing “the collective cop more reason to handle you with caution.”
Woods’ first response to viewing his friend’s commentary was, “Thank you, Rob. Thank you.”
“He explained a very complicated situation normally looked at in a linear way,” Woods said.
Just below the Compton placard in Nelson’s video is another representation: An American flag with a blue line running through it, symbolizing support for police.
“My job is my calling,” Nelson said. “But before that, I’m a human being and a Black person. I chose my career; I was born Black.”
Nelson closes his video by expressing affection for both sides of his life: “To my Compton folks, everything I do in this job I do with you in mind. To my law enforcement folks, we got this. We can turn this thing around.”
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