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Former officers say they trusted Chauvin with Floyd’s health

Tou Thao's defense rested Wednesday after a lengthy cross-examination.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Two former Minneapolis police officers on trial for alleged violations of George Floyd’s civil rights testified Wednesday that they had trusted their colleague Derek Chauvin to keep track of Floyd’s medical needs. 

Chauvin’s partner Tou Thao and onetime trainee J. Alexander Kueng both took the stand Wednesday in their own defense against charges that they violated Floyd’s rights by allowing Chauvin to kneel on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes in an arrest that ended in Floyd’s death. 

Thao first took the stand Tuesday, and on Wednesday prosecutor LeeAnn Bell continued her arduous, objection-saturated cross-examination of the 11-year veteran of the police department. Thao – who repeatedly said that he had served first as a “human traffic cone” keeping cars away from his colleagues and Floyd and then as crowd control for increasingly agitated onlookers – told Bell that he’d assumed Chauvin, Kueng and fellow officer Thomas Lane had a better understanding than he did of Floyd’s condition.

Bell sought to counteract that by pointing to body camera videos that showed Thao’s position relative to Floyd, but was frequently stymied by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson, who sustained a cavalcade of defense objections that the videos were repetitive and cumulative. Bell and Magnuson became audibly testy with one another over the issues by the end of cross-examination. 

Thao also doubled down on his assertion that he believed Floyd was suffering from excited delirium, a disputed condition frequently cited in cases of police restraint and associated with superhuman strength and failures to comply with police commands. Holding Floyd down, he said, seemed the best option in that case.

“To save his life we needed to hold him down for medical personnel,” Thao said. 

After Thao left the stand, his attorney Robert Paule briefly questioned Thao’s wife, Seng Yang, before closing his case. Kueng’s attorney Thomas Plunkett called his client’s mother, Joni Kueng, to discuss her son’s character before Kueng himself took the stand. 

Kueng gave some information on his own background, saying that he’d joined the police force despite difficulties with them growing up on Minneapolis’ North Side, a largely Black and heavily policed neighborhood. He said he’d hoped to improve the police department by being a better kind of police officer. 

In this courtroom sketch, former Minneapolis police officer J. Alexander Kueng testifies during his federal trial over the killing of George Floyd in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Cedric Hohnstadt via AP)

After discussing his training at the academy, which Plunkett has sought to depict as militaristic despite claims by trainers to the contrary, Kueng discussed his training under Chauvin, who was one of his field training officers. Chauvin, he said, was “very quiet, but he obviously had a lot of experience,” and the other officers respected him as “fair but tough, and that was consistent with my experience.” 

He also said that with 19 years of seniority, Chauvin was known for taking charge of scenes he was on despite department policy which puts scenes in the hands of the senior-most officer in the first car on scene. 

Kueng said that on May 25, 2020, his struggle to put Floyd in the police car left him with tunnel vision and low hearing when adrenaline kicked in. He also said he’d never seen a neck restraint before, but that what he saw Chauvin doing seemed to be consistent with the restraints department policy described. 

“Reading through that policy and not knowing what specific technique was being mentioned, that position is exactly what I had imagined,” he said. When Chauvin told Lane that they would leave Floyd face-down on the ground, Kueng said, “he was my senior officer, and I trusted his advice.” 

It wasn’t until after Lane had left the scene with Floyd in an ambulance and then come back to debrief that he realized Floyd might be in danger, Kueng said. He testified that Chauvin was nearest Floyd’s head, and police are trained that the officer nearest a patient’s head is in control of a medical situation. When Chauvin took out mace and shook it at bystanders, he said, it was “kind of confirmatory that the scene safety was not at a point where medical care could be provided.” 

During a use-of-force review with the sergeant on duty, Kueng said he didn’t mention that he’d been unable to find a pulse on Floyd’s wrist because he wasn’t sure he was right and it wasn’t relevant to the detail.

“It just didn’t occur to me,” he said. “I don’t think I ever did, kind of, assess it or confirm it as a serious medical need. By the time the ambulance arrived, I had checked a pulse that I couldn’t confirm… last I checked on him, I believed he was breathing.” 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Manda Sertich began her cross-examination hammering on that point, asking Kueng about his training and education before turning to questions like, “Would you agree that there’s really no need for use of force when someone has no pulse?”

Kueng agreed, but Magnuson closed court early in cross-examination. 

Lane is also expected to testify on his own behalf at trial, which is slated to last through much of February. The three former officers then face charges in state court for aiding and abetting second-degree murder, though that trial has been delayed until June.

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