Sunday, August 14, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Kneeling on neck was Chauvin’s ‘signature move,’ civil rights lawsuits say

John Pope and Zoya Code say they were both assaulted by Derek Chauvin as teenagers and that the Minneapolis Police Department encouraged his conduct.

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) —Two years after the murder of George Floyd by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the imprisoned former officer and city have been named in a pair of federal excessive force suits alleging that kneeling on Black people’s necks to restrain them was Chauvin’s “signature move” and that his superiors took no action to correct him. 

Black Minneapolis residents John Pope and Zoya Code filed their complaints in the District of Minnesota on Tuesday morning, each alleging that Chauvin had restrained them by kneeling on their necks in separate incidents in 2017, and had done so with the endorsement of the Minneapolis Police Department. 

“The City knew its officers, including Chauvin, were applying force to the backs and necks of prone… arrestees, despite the known, appreciated, and obvious risk of causing serious injury or death from positional asphyxia,” attorney Robert Bennett of Minneapolis firm Robins Kaplan wrote in both complaints. He characterized Chauvin as having “actively sought to prey on compliant Black arrestees,” enabled by an unabashedly racist culture within MPD. 

To back up that contention, Bennett cited the results of a recent Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigation which found that the department had systematically discriminated against people of color and failed to discipline officers for overtly racist conduct. That report cited Chauvin’s beating of Pope as an example, saying that officials stymied efforts to fire Chauvin by quickly placing him back on active duty. 

“Instances of misconduct, according to the DHR report, are ‘not properly investigated, not timely addressed, and officers are not consistently held accountable,’ even when BWC [body-worn camera] evidence or other objective evidence contradicts an officer’s use-of-force reporting,” Bennett wrote. “This explains why Defendant Chauvin was so nonchalant when he murdered George Floyd on film and violated the civil rights of John, Zoya Code, and others while being filmed by MPD’s own BWC equipment.” 

In Pope’s case, Chauvin and trainee Alexander Walls, also named in the complaint, arrived at Pope’s home in response to a domestic violence call. According to the complaint, Pope’s mother, who was intoxicated, told the officers that she wanted her son and 16-year-old daughter removed from the home, and Walls entered Pope’s room, where the 14-year-old was lying on the floor and using his phone. After the trainee told him to stand up and Pope did not comply, Walls grabbed Pope’s hand and Chauvin ran into the room, allegedly hitting him in the head with a flashlight.

While taking Pope to the ground, the complaint said, Chauvin struck him three more times, then placed him in a chokehold and eventually held him prone, with Chauvin’s knee on his neck, for over 15 minutes, remaining on top of him even after paramedics arrived and told him Pope would need stitches. Pope suffered an ear laceration, contusions and head trauma, and passed out during the incident. He also suffers from PTSD, according to his lawsuit, and may have suffered a traumatic brain injury or cerebral injuries. Doctors at the also-embattled Hennepin County Medical Center did not perform any diagnostic tests for such injuries. 

In the second complaint, Code alleges that Chauvin and another officer placed her in handcuffs after her mother called police to report that Code had assaulted her. Placing her in the prone position, the complaint said, Chauvin slammed Code’s head on the ground and “took his signature pose,” placing his knee on her neck. He remained there for over a minute after she was placed in a hobble device, restraining her hands and feet. In total, he stayed on her neck for almost five minutes. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The city, Bennett wrote, allowed Chauvin to “run amok… repeatedly stalking and attacking vulnerable persons of color, whether they be minors, mentally ill, or otherwise.” Sixteen complaints against the officer before his encounter with Code, he wrote, led to no discipline other than two letters of reprimand. 

As evidence of this, Bennett cited a 2005 police chase Chauvin participated in which resulted in three deaths, another kneeling incident with a Black mental health worker during a traffic stop, and Floyd’s death. 

Minneapolis City Attorney Peter Ginder said Tuesday the city hopes to reach a settlement with Pope and Code.

“The incidents involving John Pope and Zoya Code are disturbing,” Ginder said. “We intend to move forward in negotiations with the plaintiffs on these two matters and hope we can reach a reasonable settlement. If a settlement cannot be reached on one or both lawsuits, the disputes will have to be resolved through the normal course of litigation.”

Bennett did not respond to a request for comment. 

Chauvin was convicted of second-degree murder in April 2021 for Floyd’s death and is serving a 22-year prison sentence for that offense. He also pleaded guilty to violating Floyd’s civil rights late last year in exchange for dismissal of criminal charges related to Pope’s arrest. His plea agreement would put him in federal prison for up to 25 years, concurrent with his state conviction, and prevent him from working as a law enforcement officer in any capacity after his release. U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson has accepted the plea agreement and is expected to finalize sentencing later this year. 

Those agreements haven’t protected Chauvin from criminal charges in his home county, east of the Twin Cities, where he and ex-wife Kellie Chauvin face tax-evasion charges. He was also named as a defendant in a lawsuit by Floyd’s family, which the city of Minneapolis settled for a record $27 million last March. 

Also making moves on Tuesday morning were two of Chauvin’s colleagues, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng, whose criminal trial for their involvement in Floyd’s death is rapidly approaching. At a hearing before Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill, Thao and Kueng argued for a delay or change of venue for their trial, currently scheduled to begin June 14. 

Along with ongoing publicity in the wake of the anniversary of Floyd's death, the officers’ attorneys argued that disturbances in Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office warranted a move out of his jurisdiction. In a complaint publicized May 20, prosecutor Amy Sweasy alleged that Freeman took deadly-force cases from her after she told him she believed charges he recommended violated professional and ethical rules. Thao’s attorney, Robert Paule, said the disagreement was over charges against Thao, Lane and Kueng. Sweasy, who had also alleged sex discrimination in her complaint, received $190,000 in damages from the county and is no longer directly supervised by Freeman because of a no-contact agreement. 

Thao, Kueng, Chauvin and co-defendant Thomas Lane have all moved for changes of venue in the past. Cahill has denied all of those motions, agreeing with prosecutors’ arguments that Floyd’s death was highly publicized all over the nation, not just in Minneapolis. 

Lane reached a plea agreement in the state case on May 18, citing a desire to avoid a lengthy prison sentence that would prevent him from raising his newborn son. Lane, Thao and Kueng were all convicted of violating Floyd’s civil rights in federal court in February. They have yet to be sentenced, but Lane’s plea deal would make him eligible for release in two years.

“Very little has really changed since your honor denied previous motions,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank, who has led the state-court prosecutions against Chauvin and his three colleagues. He argued Tuesday that the publicity Paule and Kueng’s attorney Thomas Plunkett cited had reached every corner of the state. 

Cahill said at the hearing he would make rulings on the motions quickly. 

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...