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Testimony in George Floyd civil rights case turns to training

Prosecutors questioned Minneapolis' onetime head of police training about the department's standards on the fourth day of trial.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Testimony in the federal civil rights trial for three officers involved in the deadly arrest of George Floyd turned Thursday to the Minneapolis Police Department’s policies and training, a critical issue in prosecutors’ argument that the trio had an obligation to halt their colleague Derek Chauvin’s hold on Floyd’s neck. 

MPD Inspector Katie Blackwell, who testified last April in Chauvin’s murder trial, took the stand Thursday morning to discuss the department’s training and policies. Blackwell testified to the rule that “in your custody is in your care,” a central theme in the opening statement delivered by prosecutor Samantha Trepel on Monday. 

“If we’re taking somebody into custody,” she said, officers are obliged to “do everything we can to protect that person.” 

Blackwell, formerly the department’s training commander, spent much of her testimony Thursday discussing the training required of new MPD officers, including on the standards imposed by the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board and department policy. That included a “duty to intervene” policy written by former Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and implemented shortly before he took the helm of the department. 

The policy has been central to the case on both sides. Defense attorney Thomas Plunkett, representing former rookie officer J. Alexander Kueng, said in opening statements that his client’s training on the policy was “little more than a word on a PowerPoint.” 

Prosecutors also asked Blackwell about the department’s policies on neck restraints, including those meant to render subjects unconscious, and what police call the “maximal restraint technique,” which involves using handcuffs and a device called a hobble to tie a subject’s ankles and wrists together. Kueng’s partner Thomas Lane, early in restraining Floyd, asked Chauvin whether they should use the hobble. Chauvin declined. 

Blackwell said that officers weren’t trained to perform neck restraints with their legs, though the MPD policy manual permits such restraints. “Unconscious” restraints, she said, are meant for when a subject is showing “active aggression,” and that once unconscious, a subject should be rolled on their side into a recovery position to reduce the risk of death. 

“If a person– if you leave them in the prone and on their chest, and they’re having difficulty breathing, ultimately they can lose their pulse and stop breathing,” Blackwell said. “The concern is that they would die in custody.” 

Lane’s attorney Earl Gray has emphasized at various points that Lane asked Chauvin whether they should roll Floyd on his side on two different occasions. Prosecutors, meanwhile, have sought to show that Lane’s recognition of the danger meant that he should have rolled Floyd regardless of Chauvin’s opinion.

Calling a lunch break, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson said Blackwell’s testimony would be interrupted by another witness who had limited availability. That witness was Dr. Brad Langenfeld, the doctor who pronounced Floyd dead at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Langenfeld, who was finishing his residency at HCMC at the time, said he was not the authority on Floyd’s cause of death, deferring to the medical examiner. He said he did, however, rule out several potential causes of Floyd’s cardiac arrest while attempting to treat him. 

He found hypoxia, or a shortage of oxygen, to be “more likely than the others, with the information I had at the time.” He also entertained the possibility of acidosis, since Floyd had a high blood acidity at the time, but noted that “it would not be uncommon for a person who has been in cardiac arrest for more than half an hour at this time… to be very acidotic.” 

Gray and Thao’s attorney Robert Paule seized on that, asking if acidosis could have been attributed to excited delirium. Langenfeld was hesitant to agree, noting a controversy over the diagnosis and saying that while he had seen patients with a similar set of symptoms, he wasn’t comfortable saying one way or another whether they could have caused acidosis. 

Defense attorneys have yet to have a chance to cross-examine Blackwell, though Plunkett made numerous objections to prosecutor LeeAnn Bell’s questioning. Plunkett moved for a mistrial earlier in the day, his third such motion since trial began. Magnuson denied it, but cautioned Bell against leading witnesses. 

The government has spent much of the week so far examining eyewitnesses and showing video of Floyd’s death. Tuesday brought testimony from Cup Foods clerk Christopher Martin, who first reported the counterfeit $20 bill, and passerby Charles McMillian, who watched Floyd’s interactions with police from almost the beginning.

On Wednesday afternoon Minneapolis firefighter Genevieve Hansen, who passed the scene on a walk and demanded that the officers check Floyd’s pulse, recounted her interactions with officer Tou Thao and her observation of Floyd’s death. 

Thao, she said, was “in the way of Mr. Floyd’s medical attention.” While she admitted to shouting and swearing at the officers, she said she did so because Floyd "needed help and he wasn’t getting it, so I was just trying everything.” 

Wednesday morning saw testimony from a paramedic, Derek Smith, who took Floyd from the scene. While he testified that he believed Floyd was dead at the scene, he said the tension on-scene led him to bring Floyd a few blocks away to provide care. He also testified that Lane, who came into the ambulance with him and performed chest compressions on Floyd, was “helpful.”

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