Minneapolis: Derek Chauvin used force that was “totally unnecessary” when he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds while Floyd was handcuffed and no longer a threat, the longest-serving officer in the Minneapolis department testified Friday.
Capping a dramatic first week of testimony in Chauvin’s murder trial, Lt. Richard Zimmerman, a 35-year veteran who leads the department’s homicide division, questioned the reasoning and technique behind Floyd’s restraint, saying the man no longer appeared to be a threat.
“Pulling him down to the ground, facedown and putting your knee on the neck for that amount of time is just uncalled for,” Zimmerman testified. “I saw no reason 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.”
Not a threat
Zimmerman, who was called to the scene of Floyd’s death at 38th and Chicago on May 25, testified that once someone is handcuffed, “they are not a threat to you at that point” and the amount of force should be immediately reduced. “If your knee is on a person’s neck, that could kill him.”
The longtime homicide detective, who used work patrol, said he and other Minneapolis officers had been specifically trained to take particular care with handcuffed suspects and warned to limit use of the prone position, in which suspects are held facedown on the ground, because it can limit a person’s ability to breathe.
“Once a person is cuffed, you need to turn them on their side or have them sit up. You need to get them off their chest,” Zimmerman said, often speaking directly to the jury. “Because . . . your muscles are pulling back when you’re handcuffed, and when you’re laying on your chest, that’s restricting your breathing even more.”
Asked by prosecutors if Chauvin and the officers should have stopped their restraint once Floyd was handcuffed, on the ground and wasn’t resisting, Zimmerman declared, “Absolutely.”
Zimmerman’s testimony marked the second day in a row that prosecutors called Minneapolis police officers to the stand, including one of Chauvin’s close colleagues, to impeach the former officer’s behavior as they try to convince the jury that he violated police protocol and used excessive force, leading to Floyd’s death.
On Thursday, David Pleoger, a recently retired sergeant who was Chauvin’s supervisor in the city’s 3rd Precinct that night, testified that Chauvin should have stopped kneeling on Floyd’s neck the moment he stopped resisting. He also told the jury that Chauvin didn’t immediately tell him he’d knelt on Floyd’s neck - waiting more than 30 minutes until the men were standing outside a hospital emergency room awaiting news of Floyd’s condition to tell his supervisor that information.
“When Mr. Floyd was no longer offering up any resistance to the officers, they could have ended the restraint,” Pleoger testified. “It would be reasonable to put a knee on someone’s neck until they were not resisting anymore, but it should stop when they are no longer combative.”
Minneapolis Police Sgt. Jon Edwards testified Friday that he was asked by authorities to respond to Cup Foods, the site of the incident, not knowing that Chauvin was involved in what he described as a “critical incident.”
Edwards told prosecutors he was instructed by Pleoger, then his police supervisor, to secure the area because it “had the potential to be a possible critical incident.” Edwards explained that a “critical incident” is usually an officer-involved incident where the officer or another person has died, or “has suffered great bodily harm that later led to death.”
Zimmerman was called as the final witness of an emotionally intense week in which prosecutors opened their case against Chauvin with harrowing footage of the 46-year-old Black man’s arrest and ultimately his death, as captured on the cellphones of several bystanders and police body camera videos. In addition to the video were the searing and anguished accounts of those who happened upon the scene and tried - without success - to intervene. Several spoke about living with the resulting trauma and guilt that they were not able to save Floyd.
That included emotional testimony from Darnella Frazier, who was just 17 when she came across the scene of Floyd being restrained by police officers outside Cup Foods. With tears streaming down her face throughout her testimony, Frazier told the jury of the intense guilt she feels looking at her father, her brother, her cousins, and knowing “it could have been one of them” that day.
“It’s been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” said Frazier, who filmed the viral video of Floyd restrained under Chauvin’s knee that has been viewed millions of times.
Members of Floyd’s family were in the courtroom throughout the week. Each morning, before Philonise Floyd and his family return, he said he prays to God.
“I ask Him to help us get through,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “And I just ask Him to help us get through the testimonies of everyone that was witness to my brother’s death. I want [the witnesses] to get through it, too, because what they saw will forever be seared in their minds. I want them to get that out of the minds.”
Each day, he said, the family decides who will take the seat reserved for the family in the courtroom. Most days it has been him. He said he tries to remind himself of a few things. Stay composed. Don’t look too much at his brother’s killer. Stay focused on getting justice.
Still, he said, it can be difficult to take his own advice - sitting isolated and alone, watching videos of his big brother’s death from every angle. No one in the family particularly likes to do it but someone has to. It is a gruesome, painful duty.
“One of the biggest things I tried to do to make everyone laugh and joke,” he said. “Because that’s what George would have done. That’s a family thing we do; we try to laugh. But every time we see the video it makes you want to cry. Again and again and again.”
A particularly tough moment for the family was when Charles McMillian, 61, broke down in tears on the witness stand earlier in the week. McMillian broke down as prosecutors presented body camera video that showed him urging Floyd to cooperate with the police as Floyd resisted being placed inside a squad car, telling officers that he was claustrophobic.
“Oh my god,” McMillian cried out, resting his head on the witness stand, his body shaking, causing Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill to call a brief recess. As members of the jury watched him sympathetically, McMillian told prosecutors he had felt “helpless” as he watched nearly the entire interaction between Floyd and police, ending with his lifeless body being placed in an ambulance.
Rodney Floyd, who was in the courtroom that day, was seen crying during the break. While George Floyd was described as a mama’s boy, the truth is all of Floyd’s brothers say they were mama’s boys. Before the trial, Rodney Floyd had said how they wished their mother, Larcenia “Cissy” Floyd could be there to help them get through. As he lay dying, Floyd cried out to his mother. In the courtroom, McMillian cried about his own mother.
And when Rodney Floyd got to the overflow room, he realized many in the family were crying about their mother, too.
“You just felt his pain,” Philonise Floyd said of McMillian. “And every time he dropped one tear, I dropped two or three.”
“I knew this was going to be difficult because you’re going on an emotional roller coaster, every day,” he said. “You’re there every day. No one knows the love you had for him and you’re affected in a different level. The magnitude of pain you see in the courtroom, it’s overwhelming. And then you see him dying every day. He’s there with you every day, but he’s dying every day.”
Next week, prosecutors are expected to call Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo to the stand to talk about the department’s use of force policies. Arradondo, who has described Floyd’s death as “murder,” will also likely be asked about his decision to fire Chauvin and the other officers at the scene so quickly - though attorneys for both sides have sought to limit that testimony.
The case is then expected to move to medical witnesses, including Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker. Last June, Baker, who is expected to be a key witness in the case, declared Floyd’s death a homicide, listing “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint and neck compression” as the cause of death.
Chauvin’s defense has argued that Floyd did not die because of the former officer’s knee but rather from a combination of underlying health issues, adrenaline rushing through his body and a drug overdose, citing an autopsy that recorded high levels of fentanyl and other substances in Floyd’s system.
Chauvin is charged with second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death. The other officers at the scene - Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao - are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. Those officers, who also were fired, are scheduled to stand trial in August.