Opinion: Berkeley police officer on why he took a knee in Oakland protest

I made a spontaneous decision that’s had incredible consequences for me, my friends, the department and officers I love.

Lt. Spencer Fomby of the Berkeley Police Department took a knee during recent protests in Oakland, inspiring other officers from Berkeley and Oakland to do the same. Image: Sean McCabe

Editor’s note: For several days in the past week, Berkeley officers were sent to Oakland to help maintain order during large protests against police violence and structural racism sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of officers in Minneapolis. On Sunday night, hundreds of people occupied the intersection at Eighth and Clay streets for hours while police there held a skirmish line. Police at that location used no force, and protesters and officers had frank discussions about the reasons they were there. At the behest of demonstrators, one of those exchanges ultimately led Lt. Spencer Fomby, a black officer who works at the Berkeley Police Department, to take a knee in solidarity with the concerns of the crowd. Many officers from Berkeley, then Oakland, followed his lead. Viral videos of what took place have now been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on social media.

Twenty years ago I reluctantly became a police officer. I was always skeptical of the criminal justice system and the institution of policing. After graduating from Howard, I decided to be the change I wanted to see in the system. One day in the police academy I received a text message that said, “Did you hear about Prince?” There was a link to an article attached to the text.

It was a story about my friend, my brother, my Howard classmate Prince Jones being killed by a police officer in the Washington, D.C., area. I was stunned. I asked the academy staff if I could read the article to my classmates. I held back tears as I read the article. I wanted them to understand my reality.

The fact that Prince was killed by a cop made me feel that no one was exempt from police brutality. I have dedicated my career to trying to do things the right way. I became a trainer and SWAT officer to improve outcomes of confrontations between police and the public. My goal has always been the safety of everyone involved. Prince has been on my mind the whole time.

The cowardly murder of George Floyd brought back all of those feelings. I once again found myself asking why does this keep happening? How can anyone be that depraved to casually sit on another man’s neck while he begs for his life? And continue for 2 more minutes after he becomes unresponsive. I immediately knew the actions of that coward would lead to serious unrest all over the country.

The first night of protests in Oakland, my team faced one of the most aggressive and violent crowds of my career. We had rocks, bottles, explosives and multiple Molotov cocktails thrown at us. Several officers were injured. During one of the skirmishes, we heard the radio traffic of Federal Reserve Officer Dave Patrick Underwood being murdered a couple of blocks away. The team remained focused and I was incredibly proud.

On Sunday, I found myself in a familiar place: in front of a hostile crowd in the midst of so much pain and anger. People were angry and confrontational, but not violent. My team stood on the line for two hours taking verbal abuse, but remained professional. I saw my teammates having positive exchanges with people in the crowd. I saw a couple of people in the crowd trying to start physical confrontations, but my team didn’t take the bait. I made a spontaneous decision that’s had incredible consequences for me, my friends, the department and officers I love.

My responsibility in that moment was the safety of everyone on scene. My team is capable of incredible things in the most dangerous situations, but we never hit the ground looking for a fight. If I can avoid a fight by talking, I will always make that choice. I chose to listen and speak from the heart. I chose to take a knee.

People are free to have their own opinions. When deciding between the easy thing or the hard thing, do the right thing.

An extended video of Fomby’s conversation with members of the crowd, before he took a knee, was posted on Facebook on Monday. Fomby shared that video on his Facebook page Thursday along with these reflections, which have been published on Berkeleyside with his permission. Later in the night, the Oakland Police Department organized a second round of kneeling. Video of that episode has also been posted online.

Spencer Fomby is a 20-year veteran of the Berkeley Police Department. He is a nationally recognized expert in police tactics, public order and de-escalation.