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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Ex-cop Thao takes stand in George Floyd civil rights case

The former Minneapolis officer, who stood guard while Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck, said he assumed his colleagues were tracking Floyd's medical condition.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Ex-Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao, who kept bystanders on the sidewalk during George Floyd’s deadly May 2020 arrest, took the stand in his own defense Tuesday against charges that he violated Floyd’s civil rights. 

Thao, who played a prominent role in viral videos of Floyd’s death by standing between bystanders and the three officers holding Floyd down, testified on questioning from his defense attorney that he’d assumed his colleagues were monitoring Floyd’s medical condition when Thao’s partner Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes. 

“I had a different role, which was to do crowd control,” Thao told his attorney Robert Paule.

He stopped short of saying that Chauvin or his co-defendants, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, should have been keeping track of Floyd’s vitals, but said that were he restraining Floyd, he would have been responsible for monitoring his condition. While bystanders demanded that he check Floyd’s pulse, he said, he trusted that if his colleagues weren’t doing CPR, Floyd was breathing. 

Kueng and Lane each checked Floyd for a pulse, but were unable to find one and continued to restrain him. The officers did not perform CPR at the scene, though Lane left the scene with paramedics and performed CPR in the ambulance after the fact. 

Thao also testified that while he himself didn’t typically use his knee for restraints, he didn’t see an issue with Chauvin’s decision to kneel on Floyd’s neck at the time. Such restraints, he said, are common in the Minneapolis Police Department and trained at its police academy and in continuing education. At 5 feet and 10 inches tall, Thao said, knee restraints can throw him off balance, so he prefers to use his elbow. 

Thao and Chauvin arrived at the scene, he said, after deciding to back up Lane and Kueng despite being called off. The area of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, he said, is in the territory of the Bloods street gang, and the duo worried that Lane and Kueng, who had recently finished field training, weren’t aware of the risk.

Paule spent much of the morning on the department’s training, showing several photos of cadets performing restraints much like the one Chauvin used on Floyd and seeking to depict the academy’s training as paramilitary in style, contrary to trainers’ assertions that the department had moved away from its earlier militant approach.

In the afternoon, Paule turned to the scene of Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020. Thao said he was concerned about Floyd’s health in light of apparent drug use, but believed that Lane had already called EMS and that the two junior officers were in charge of the scene. He said that it was only after Chauvin tapped him on the shoulder and said “we’re done” and firefighters arrived looking for Floyd that he suspected more was going on. 

Thao also discussed his career with the MPD, beginning from his first experience with police after his father was arrested for beating him, his brother and his mother with an electrical cord and threatening to kill him them with a pistol. He then went through his recruitment, layoff and hiring in 2011, including a brief stint as a security guard at a Minneapolis hospital affiliated with the University of Minnesota. 

Paule used that employment to discuss Thao’s experience with excited delirium syndrome, or ExDS, a controversial diagnosis describing irrational or violent behavior, especially towards police. ExDS has been rejected by the American Medical Association, but the American College of Emergency Physicians has stood by it. Thao said he witnessed several instances at the hospital and during his time at MPD in which he believed people were experiencing ExDS, and that he suspected Floyd may have been, too. 

Criticisms of ExDS have exploded in recent years, with critics saying it is too vaguely defined, disproportionately applied to minority communities and overused as a justification for law enforcement uses of force. Defenders, meanwhile, have said that emergency physicians have more experience with the syndrome and have a legitimate interest in preventing it from causing deaths. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney LeeAnn Bell’s cross-examination of Thao was slowed substantially by rapid-fire objections from Paule, who called her questioning argumentative and argued to U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson that her efforts to show Thao segments of video were prejudicial toward his client. Magnuson largely agreed, leading to repeated sidebars and tense exchanges with a visibly frustrated Bell. 

In between those exchanges, Bell got a few concessions out of Thao. He agreed that Floyd appeared unconscious to him late in his restraint, and that, had he been concerned Floyd was suffering from a drug overdose, he had access to the overdose-reversing drug Narcan. 

She also got a shot in about Floyd’s cries that he couldn’t breathe. Thao, on direct examination, said that after the 2014 death of Eric Garner in New York Police Department custody, he’d seen an increase in subjects saying “I can’t breathe” during arrests. 

“Eric Garner died, right?” Bell asked. “Your job is to protect the public, right? You can’t disregard someone saying ‘I can’t breathe’ just because somebody a week ago lied about it.” 

Thao is the second witness in his own defense. He was preceded by a brief examination of FBI agent Blake Hosteter, who interviewed Thao at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. 

Thao, Lane and Kueng, who each face federal civil rights charges for Floyd’s death as well as state charges for aiding and abetting his murder, have all indicated that they will testify at their federal trial. Prosecutors wrapped their case on Monday, and the trial is expected to continue for much of February. 

The trio’s trial takes place against a backdrop of several ongoing policing debates in Minnesota. The GOP-majority state Senate passed a $65 million package aimed at law enforcement recruitment and retention on Monday, including a $1 million marketing campaign promoting policing. Some members of the state’s Democratic Farmer Labor Party, which holds a majority in the state House of Representatives, have pushed to drop the advertising campaign, but the bill enjoyed bipartisan support in the Senate. 

Meanwhile, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey responded Monday to revelations in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the city’s police department had continued training on ExDS after he claimed it had stopped. Frey and interim Police Chief Amelia Huffman said that Hennepin Healthcare physician Dr. Paul Nystrom, who led the trainings, had provided an outline of revised training which did not include discussion of ExDS. Nystrom, who moonlights as a police officer, was shown on tape saying that the term had become “triggering” for the public and suggesting that officers use euphemisms for fundamentally the same phenomenon. 

Hennepin Healthcare issued an apology Monday, and Frey said he had “directed the department to immediately terminate their contract with Dr. Nystrom” while continuing to work with the hospital system. 

Categories / Civil Rights, Criminal, Trials

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