A homicide lieutenant, the Minneapolis Police Department’s senior-most officer, said Derek Chauvin’s lengthy hold on George Floyd’s neck was “uncalled for.”
MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Two of Derek Chauvin’s superiors in the Minneapolis Police Department took the stand Friday in his murder trial for the death of George Floyd, describing their handling of the scene at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in the aftermath of Floyd’s deadly arrest and discussing the responsibilities of officers in the course of an arrest.
One of those officers, the MPD’s most senior officer and a homicide lieutenant, said that Chauvin’s use of force against Floyd was “totally unnecessary.” That characterization echoed Wednesday’s testimony from Chauvin’s former supervisor, who said that in the same situation he would have ended his use of force when Floyd stopped offering resistance.
Sergeant Jon Edwards was leading the night shift, or “dogwatch,” out of MPD’s 3rd Precinct the night of May 25, 2020. He started testimony Friday morning with a rundown of his experience after taking over that night.
The shift started at 8:30 p.m.. At that time, paramedics had just arrived at 38th and Chicago and removed Chauvin from Floyd’s neck. Edwards said he received news of the event from mid-watch sergeant David Pleoger, who called him from the hospital where he, Chauvin and fellow officer Tou Thao were waiting for news about Floyd’s condition.
Edwards said Ploeger told him that the situation could soon become a “critical incident,” a broad term for happenings including the death or serious injury of an officer or someone in police custody. Ploeger asked Edwards to lock down the scene, he said, and he did so after arriving around 9:35 p.m.
There he met J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, two rookie cops who held down Floyd’s back and legs while Chauvin knelt on his neck. Kueng and Lane, along with Thao, are scheduled to go to trial on aiding-and-abetting charges for Floyd’s death in August. At that time they were the only officers on the scene, he said. He called more of his squad to the intersection, and the whole group began work preparing the scene for investigation.
“The crime scene is supposed to be secured, which means locked down, and that is for the purpose of preserving any evidence that may be there,” Edwards said.
Shortly afterward, Lieutenant Richard Zimmerman of the city’s homicide squad arrived. Zimmerman said he was MPD’s most senior officer, having joined the department in 1985 after a four-year stint as a sheriff’s deputy in southern Minnesota. He took over the scene from Edwards briefly before turning it over to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension after learning that Floyd had died, he said.
In his testimony, Zimmerman discussed sending Kueng and Lane to City Hall with an escort, where they would be interviewed by investigators. Going over body camera footage, he also identified several officers for Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank.
The scene set, Frank turned to Zimmerman’s training and experience with MPD’s use-of-force practices. Force, Zimmerman said, is based on a continuum of escalation in which deadly force is only permissible in response to danger. Placing a knee on Floyd’s neck, he said, constituted deadly force.
“First of all, holding him down to the ground face down, and putting your knee on the neck for that amount of time is just uncalled for,” Zimmerman said. “I saw no reason why the officers felt they were in danger, if that’s what they felt, and that’s what they would have to feel to be able to use that kind of force.”
He also said that placing handcuffed subjects in a prone position, as Floyd was, could endanger them by making it difficult to breathe. In general, Zimmerman maintained, using deadly force on a handcuffed person was never necessary.
Once handcuffed, he said, “that person is yours. He’s your responsibility. His safety is your responsibility, his well-being is your responsibility.”
“Once a person is cuffed, the threat level goes down all the way. They’re cuffed, how can they really hurt you?” he continued, noting that while someone could struggle or kick while handcuffed, their chances of seriously injuring an officer are greatly reduced.
On cross-examination, Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson picked at that answer, getting Zimmerman to agree that handcuffs did not totally eliminate potential threats posed by a subject. He also worked to question Zimmerman’s on-the-ground savvy, pointing out that as a plainclothes officer he wasn’t getting into scuffles as often as patrol cops.
Zimmerman acknowledged that, saying that his last physical fight on the job was in 2018. Asked if the training for officers had changed since 1985, he said that certain parts had, but also noted that he was up to date on the training.
Nelson also continued on a tack he has taken since the trial began, asking about how external factors could impact decision-making. He has made efforts to depict the crowd of increasingly distressed bystanders looking on as Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck as an unruly mob, suggesting that the stress and uncertainty created by the crowd could have heightened the danger of the situation.
“A police officer’s responsibility, and part of the use-of-force determination, is to prevent or avoid the use of force against other people, correct?” Nelson asked. “ So if you have to use force against one person to avoid using force against others, that’s a factor that an officer should consider, agreed?”
Zimmerman said he wasn’t sure he did agree, and that officers involved in training might be better equipped to answer that question.
Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor Bradford Colbert said Zimmerman’s testimony was a striking first-week closer for prosecutors.
“To have him testify against another officer — it’s a strong point for the state,” he said. “You have an incredibly experienced police officer testifying from his long experience, and I think the state did a really nice job building up his credibility.”
He also commented on Nelson’s efforts to paint the situation as chaotic.
“It seems to me, as far as I can tell, that the defense has two arguments. The first is that his conduct was reasonable,” he said, adding that presenting an image of an unpredictable or hostile crowd is part of that. “One of the things that they’re going to talk about is the reasonableness ‘in the eyes of the officer at the time.’ That’s what he’s trying to convey, is look at what’s going on at the time.”
Colbert said he wasn’t sure how that would pan out for either side.
“The state’s trying to say, well, they’re agitated because you’re killing him, but frankly I don’t know how it’s going to play,” the professor said.
Edwards and Zimmerman’s testimony marks an apparent end to the first scene-setting phase of Chauvin’s trial. Since trial began Monday, the state has called 20 witnesses. Ten of those were civilians who watched Floyd’s arrest, in part or in full, from parking lots, stores and sidewalks around 38th and Chicago. Four were minors at the time, including Darnella Frazier, whose Facebook video of the scene rapidly went viral.
As the week went on, testimony moved outward from the critical 9 minutes in which Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. Christopher Belfrey testified on Wednesday, walking through a series of short videos he took of Kueng and Lane’s initial apprehension of Floyd while he and his fiancé stopped at Cup Foods for some food. Just before Belfrey, Cup Foods employee Christopher Martin discussed his interactions with Floyd and two others at and around the store, where Floyd bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill and twice declined to return to the store after a manager sent the teenaged Martin out to get him.
Thursday brought testimony from Floyd’s on-again off-again girlfriend Courteney Ross, who tearfully discussed her relationship with Floyd and the couple’s struggles with opioid addiction. Colbert said that testimony sought to head off Nelson’s other chief argument: that drugs, not Chauvin’s knee, caused Floyd’s death.
Nelson has argued that Floyd, who Martin and the officers involved have said was visibly intoxicated at the time of his arrest, died of a drug overdose. Fentanyl and methamphetamine were found on toxicology screens after Floyd’s death, but prosecutors have sought to establish that Floyd, like many addicts, had built up a high tolerance to the drugs.
“One of the things they teach in law school is to, in a sense, anticipate what the other side’s going to do,” Colbert said. “Owning the drug use, and owning the addiction, seemed to be something [prosecutors] were trying to do by leading with Floyd’s partner.”
Broadly, Colbert said, things seemed to be going well for the state. He pointed out, however, that Nelson told jurors to be patient in his opening statement. No defense witnesses have been called yet, and Nelson may have anticipated that the early part of the trial wouldn’t go his way.
That said, Colbert added, “I don’t think [Nelson] anticipated it going quite the way that it did.”
Ross’ testimony was followed by that of the two paramedics who removed Floyd from the scene. Both stopped short of saying that Chauvin had killed Floyd, but one, Derek Smith, said bluntly that he believed Floyd to be effectively dead by the time he arrived at Cup Foods. He spoke of wanting to give Floyd a “second chance” at life, but said that the time Floyd spent on the ground without a pulse worked against him.
He had sharp words for the officers. “There was no reason Minneapolis”– meaning the police department — “couldn’t have started chest compressions,” Smith said.
Most of the closest eyewitnesses to the arrest have testified already. A few key witnesses, including Thao, Lane and Kueng, are on prosecutors’ witness list, but may or may not testify. Chauvin also has two Minneapolis Park Police officers who responded to Cup Foods’ call on his witness list. In the immediate future, however, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo is expected to take the stand on Monday.
Protests have taken place at various points during the trial, but were relatively quiet on Friday afternoon. Court staff said they would be doing cleanup operations in the Hennepin County Government Center’s northern courtyard, where a handful of activists have camped out and installed art. Padlocks and ribbons with the names and stories of police-killing victims were tied to the fences there, along with portraits of high-profile Black victims like Floyd, Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor and Philando Castille, who was shot and killed in 2018 in nearby Falcon Heights after telling an officer that he was carrying a licensed firearm.
Lower-profile deaths also appear on the smaller ribbons, including some who died in police custody or in gunfights with police. Signs adjacent to the locks appeared to protest cleanups of the art, with slogans like “cutting down harmless locks is a waste of our tax dollars.”
The city has been on high alert since before the beginning of trial, with enormous barricades and heavy law enforcement presence gathered around the courthouse. Arradondo and Mayor Jacob Frey announced “Operation Safety Net” in February. The name refers to a massive increase in law enforcement presence and capacity, drawing from state, federal and suburban law enforcement agencies to head off a possible repeat of last summer’s riots.
Trial is set to last through much of April. Judge Peter Cahill has said that while it’s possible it could extend into May, he won’t be happy if it does.