Police, community show support for chief who laid down during protest

Shaw took part in Black Lives Matter protest at Webster Town Hall

📸 Webster Police Chief Michael Shaw hugs a protestor during a June 6 Black Lives Matter protest on the steps of Webster Town Hall. Cody Peck photo.

WEBSTER — Two days after he laid face down on the steps of Town Hall with protestors for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Police Chief Michael Shaw is receiving support from other first responders and local officials.

In addition to a number of positive comments, the Webster Police Department has received “extreme” comments from some individuals who were upset by the chief’s participation in the June 6 protest, according to Deputy Chief of Police Tobby Wheeler. A number of law enforcement officers, first responders, and elected officials have written public statements of support for Shaw in the wake of some of those criticisms.

“These letters are an unprecedented, unified show of support from Town Government and community Public Safety Agencies,” wrote Wheeler in a post on the Webster Police Department’s Facebook page. “The letters speak for themselves.”

In an open letter written on June 8, Shaw addressed the “ubiquitous social media posts, some of which contextually slanted versions of what happened” in the June 6 protest. Shaw suggested his actions helped ensure the protest was peaceful from start to finish, noting: “I feel the leadership I displayed throughout this event helped lead it to its peaceful result, while at the same time also sending a resounding message that our community is one.”

Shaw, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1992 to 1998, insists his participation in the protest was to advocate for a positive change and support the event’s organizers and participants, not to seek attention or condemn the police community.

“It wasn’t a grand gesture to insult Law Enforcement. It wasn’t a global commentary on everything occurring. It was not intended to turn the conversation onto me,” he wrote. “It was one man in a position to help promote change and to support, amongst others, three great young adults who are already becoming leaders in their own right.”

In his own open letter, Wheeler commended the organizers of the local protest for working to “have their voices heard in the wake of an abhorrent criminal act.” He noted organizers reached out to police as part of their planning process, an act the deputy chief said shows a “level of trust” organizers have in the Webster Police Department.

Wheeler described the police department’s reaction to the initial inquiry “with cautious, yet optimistic, open arms.”

He continued: “Given the events unfolding across the Country, it is reasonable for any Police Department to be cautious when approached for a protest, regardless of the topic of protest.”

Wheeler said the protest had an estimated crowd of 400-500 people, and noted there were no incidents and only one arrest occurred at a protest site, though it was not protest-related.

Town Administrator Doug Willardson and selectmen Randy Becker, Don Bourque, Andrew Jolda, Lisa Kontoes, and Earl Gabor, signed a June 8 letter of commendation for Shaw.

“Unfortunately, there has been recent unwarranted tumult from certain out of town individuals following the demonstration,” the letter reads. “We would like to express our unwavering support for you and recognize you for the outstanding job you are doing leading the Webster Police Department.”

Wheeler: “Racism still exists”

Shaw’s actions were “amazing,” according to Webster EMS Chief Gary Milliard, Jr., who penned an open letter detailing his thoughts on racial injustices and inequalities.

“Years and years of oppression and indignant behavior against humanity have brought the United States to this boiling point which we all agree must end,” Milliard wrote.

He later added: “Our chief did something amazing. He laid on the ground and put himself at the same level of those who were crying out for fairness and equality. He laid in support of those who were killed out of hate and prejudice. Our Chief had the courage to say enough is enough and everyone in our nation must do better.”

Wheeler noted the event took place on the anniversary of the D-Day invasion of World War II, and that 76 years after Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy to battle the Nazis, hatred and racism still exists.

“That day has certainly not been forgotten, but one has to question where the sentiment behind that cause for justice has gone,” Wheeler said of the D-Day invasion. “Hate still exists. It exists in many forms. Racism still exists. It exists unilaterally regardless of color. Based on the news, it seems hate and racism are omnipresent and existing with increased intensity.”

Willardson and selectmen describe Shaw as “a true leader who is serious about improving racial relationships” between police and community members.

“Some may not have appreciated your participation in the demonstration, but we applaud it as having been the right thing to do,” the letter continues. “Rather than simply giving lip service and not participate, it took great courage and perseverance to actually stand in solidarity with the organizers and activists that are trying to bring about positive change.”

Webster Police Lieutenant Gordon Wentworth, Jr., who described Shaw as “the epitome of what it means to be a Police Officer,” lauded the chief’s efforts in working with organizers to put together the protest.

“Chief Shaw not only helped to organize the protest, he willingly participated in it, as any good community Leader should do,” Wentworth wrote. “Chief Shaw, the Police Officer that he is, single handedly broke down some barriers fostered by ‘bad cops.’ Society has cried for those barriers to be broken down. Society has witnessed the fear, anger, divisiveness, and hate that those barriers have historically created. Chief Shaw stood in solidarity with his community and his Police Officers alike, and he is now being vilified for it. I do not and I cannot understand why.”

Wentworth added that he is “disgusted” by the hate he has seen directed at Shaw and his family “as a result of his participation in our peaceful protest.”

Gregory Lynskey, who serves as director of the South Worcester County Communications Center, also penned an open letter of support for Shaw.

“Throughout my career, I am not sure I have ever come across a person who is as open minded and selfless as Chief Shaw. The mere fact that Chief Shaw chose to be involved in the demonstration and to assist in the logistical planning of it speaks volumes to his character,” Lynskey wrote. “He wanted not only to allow the organizers the ability to express their Constitutional right to be heard but he wanted to ensure the safety, of not only his officers, but all of the outside officers assisting under mutual aid.”

Lynskey described Shaw’s participation in the protest as “a sincere gesture by a sincere man.”

Webster Fire Chief Brian Hickey added in his own letter: “Mike takes great pride in his job and his work ethic is proof positive that he leads by example.”

Shaw’s actions not an us vs. them approach

Wheeler said some of the criticisms and complaints directed toward Shaw “has come from so-called other Law Enforcement Professionals,” which the deputy chief says has attempted to “overshadow” the “major success” of the protest. In response to those critics, Wheeler wrote: “Know yourselves and know your own agencies before you cast judgement on Chief Shaw. You are not him. You were not here. You are not a part of the Webster Community. You don’t know him or what is in his heart. Despite any bravado, unless you were him, at the specific place, with all those specific people, in full view of our specific community, in that specific moment, you don’t know what you would have done. You don’t know how you would have expressed your support for the three young, socially minded, sincere, protest organizers who you came to respect. Despite any bravado, you don’t know. You simply don’t.”

In response to the “seemingly unrelenting backlash against” Shaw “for a moment of sincerity displayed by him,” Local 473 of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police also penned a letter in support of Shaw’s actions. The letter came after a vote regarding the Union’s confidence in Shaw’s leadership the day after the protest, resulting in “an overwhelming support and confidence in Chief Shaw,” with a 24-2 vote, plus one abstention.

The letter, signed by 25 union members, states Local 473 believes Shaw’s participation in the protest was “not a show of cowardice, nor an act of defiance of Law Enforcement ethics, or a deliberate attempt to appease.”

The Union letter continued: “It was not intended as insult or as a disregard for the struggles of Police in modern times. It was an act of leadership, and an act of community.”

While some protests across the country have espoused blanket anti-police sentiments, Shaw believes one can be supportive of those peacefully protesting in the memory of George Floyd and other people of color, while also being supportive of the law enforcement community.

“I felt it important to lead my Department in the progressive, forward-thinking manner in which I have always strived to do. Simply talking about certain injustices, versus taking peaceful action against them are two different things,” he wrote. “Supporting peaceful protestors does not mean that I do not support Law Enforcement. I support both. I have supported Law Enforcement my entire life. I am a Police Officer and have been for 23 years. I am passionate about this profession. I am also passionate about the wonderfully diverse community of Webster that I am proud and fortunate enough to serve.”

Wheeler noted that while 8 minutes and 46 seconds may have taken the life of George Floyd, and spoiled any positives in the careers of the Minneapolis police officers involved in the matter, Shaw’s time on the ground has not spoiled his career or standing.

“Yes, nearly nine minutes may define a career. That was just painfully displayed in Minneapolis. But those nearly nine minutes here certainly do not undue [sic] a career of service, which is unquestionably better than most. Those who wish to condemn him, should take a step back and examine themselves. We all should,” Wheeler wrote. “Those who choose to vilify and not stand with us in support and understanding now, our message to you is clear: We will stand with you in your time. That’s the type of Officers we have been led to be. Chief of Police Michael D. Shaw has my full support and he will continue to have my full support.”

The Union reaffirmed this notion in its letter: “Regardless of the negativity currently being cast upon Chief Shaw, the officers of the Webster Police Department will continue to come to work every day and serve the community of which we are all a part, and do so in full confidence with Chief Michael Shaw as our Commanding Officer — and this fact should be far more resounding than the negative comments of any person that has not worked with or for Chief Shaw.”

During the June 6 protest on the steps of Webster Town Hall, participants laid face down for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in memory of George Floyd. Webster Police Chief Michael Shaw laid on the ground with protesters during this portion of the event. Cody Peck photo.

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