Now To Next With Sheriff Chris Swanson
Throughout the volatile summer of 2020, police officers suddenly became the object of hatred around the country when George Floyd was publicly murdered by a police officer. Sheriff Chris Swanson of Genesee County, Michigan, didn’t know he was going to become the agent of change who would turn hatred into respect that summer, but that is exactly what he did while preventing unnecessary death, destruction, and discrimination in his jurisdiction.
Sheriff Swanson is a career police officer with experience spanning nearly three decades and has served in a range of positions, including corrections, patrol, narcotics, criminal investigation, death investigation, and command operations. Sheriff Swanson received national attention in 2020 during the George Floyd protests when he removed his riot gear and marched with protesters. He also founded the Genesee Human Oppression Strike Team (dubbed GHOST) in 2018, which is a specialized unit of officers who combat crimes of human trafficking and drug offenses throughout southeast Michigan, which has become a model program for sheriff departments around the county. He has made it his mission to change the perception of law enforcement by focusing not just on protecting and serving, but also on unifying the community.
Sheriff Swanson joined me on my Now to Next podcast to talk about the tensions surrounding the protests that erupted in 2020 and how he managed to turn a potentially explosive situation into a peaceful and unifying event, as well as his role in establishing G.H.O.S.T.
Attitude, Responses, And Behavior Are The Only Things Within Our Control
I launched into our conversation by asking Sheriff Swanson how, in the face of the things he sees daily, focusing on the toughest part of the population, does he maintain a positive attitude and keep perspective and balance in his life?
“It’s a choice,” Sheriff Swanson told me. He said, “I choose to be the person I am. I don’t let my emotions dictate my responses to what’s going on around me. As an elected public official there are high expectations for my delivery. As a student of leadership, I know there are people watching and people will model my behavior. My choice is to respond with intention.”
We both agreed there is little anyone can control in life. Sheriff Swanson said, “I can’t control if a person takes drugs or commits suicide or decides to be a prostitute. I can only control my behavior.” Which reminded me of a quote I admire and embodies what Sheriff Swanson is trying to do, “Leadership is the example you set for the people you serve.”
The People Of Flint, Michigan Were Already Angry After Decades Of Frustration
After George Floyd was murdered there was a lot that happened in Genesee County. They were already planning on having a protest before the Floyd murder. The people of Flint had been living with decades of anxiety, racial division, frustration, and anger. They were dealing with city water that was poisoned, violent crime, and poverty. The Floyd murder was just one more example that made the people wonder how much more they could take.
Sheriff Swanson explained that when a police force mounts an operation they are basically planning for battle because no one knows what might happen. He told me that when they meet conflict police are trained to respond to force with equal or greater force. He said “The tension was already building. It was a powder keg.”
We Prepare In The Calm For The Chaos
I couldn’t imagine the intensity of the situation. Yet somehow Sheriff Swanson maintained an attitude of achieving a peaceful resolution. He admitted he had no idea how that would happen. I asked him how, amid so much tension that could have turned into total chaos and destruction he was able to stay focused on peace. His answer: “I always prepared in the calm for the chaos.” That practice seems to have permeated Sheriff Swanson’s being because he was able to turn a crowd of thousands away from the jail and police department and rally them into a unified whole with a singular desire for real change.
As Sheriff Swanson related, the entire area was surrounded by officers in riot gear. Helmets and vests and protective eye gear were donned. Sheriff Swanson knew a beloved pastor was somewhere in the area. He called his cell phone and when the pastor answered, the Sheriff asked where he was. The pastor was in the middle walking with the protestors. Finally, Sheriff Swanson spotted the pastor in the crowd and decided to go and greet him. He took off his helmet and riot gear and walked into the crowd where he immediately hugged the pastor and told him that the police were only present to protect the people. The pastor asked the sheriff to tell the crowd the same thing. The two of them got the attention of the crowd and the Sheriff delivered his message. Then everyone in the crowd invited him to walk with them.
The rest of the story is history. This moment was filmed and posted on social media and got 2.4 billion views in an hour! What the world saw that day was the beginning of race relations in Sheriff Swanson’s jurisdiction. He refuses to be just another example of race division, police, and community division. He made a promise to be an agent of change. The action started immediately.
Igniting Change In The Community
It’s clear that Sheriff Swanson’s new vision to Protect, Serve and Unify is more than a slogan. Sheriff Swanson went on to tell me about the various community programs he helped launch after that historic peaceful march where not a single business was violated, not a board broken, not a building burned. Sheriff Swanson started visiting the mosques and synagogues, and the jails. He launched the Ignite Program that brings education to those in jail and prepares them for successful lives once they get out. This program initiated a complete culture change transitioning from 185 years of running jails the same way into something different.
Genesee Human Oppression Strike Team a.k.a. G.H.O.S.T.
We also turned our attention to another subject, human trafficking. Sheriff Swanson explained that human trafficking involves more than prostitution. It involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion for some type of labor or sex. I happen to know as does Sheriff Swanson that human trafficking is the fastest-growing illegal underground operation worldwide. Prior to becoming Sheriff, Chris was recruited to play an undercover role in an international operation to arrest human traffickers and help the women and children. After his participation in several countries, he realized the same thing was probably happening in his own community. His predecessor at the time allowed Sheriff Swanson to build a strike team locally. In the very first local operation, the team found 72 kids off the grid being trafficked.
Sheriff Swanson represents the goodness that inspires the majority of people who go into law enforcement. While we frequently see the worst behavior, it isn’t often that we see the best.
To catch the full interview I had with Sheriff Chris Swanson, you can listen to it on your favorite podcast listening platform. And of course, you can always reach out to me directly with any questions you might have!