Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was charged today with third-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. Video of Chauvin, who is white, with his knee on the neck of Floyd, who is black, has caused days of protests and rioting in the Twin Cities and other communities across the country.
According to charging documents, an autopsy showed no evidence of strangulation or "traumatic asphyxia," but it says being restrained by police, combined with Floyd's underlying health problems, likely contributed to his death.
In recent years, many police departments have trained officers to be alert to the risk of what's called "positional asphyxia," the possibility that prolonged restraint of a suspect in a prone position can be deadly. It's a lesson some in the Minneapolis Police Department already learned once, 10 years ago.
Minneapolis paid out $3 million dollars to settle a lawsuit over the 2010 death of David Smith, 28. The young black man was mentally ill, his attorneys said, and died after officers Tasered him and then held him face-down on the floor for several minutes. One of them kept a knee on his back even after he stopped responding to questions.
The above video came from a personal camera carried by one of the officers, and was evidence in the lawsuit. The attorney for Smith's family, Bob Bennett, says the parallels between that video and the images of what happened to George Floyd are "stark."
"Both videos show an inhumanity and uncaringness that are quite frightening, I think," he says.
Bennett says when Minneapolis settled the Smith case, it pledged additional training for officers in how to restrain suspects more safely. At the time he assumed the police department would follow through with the training, but now he's not sure.
This kind of training has become more common in recent years, especially after the death of Eric Garner, who was tackled around the neck and held down by New York City police in 2014. His repeated cries of "I can't breathe" became a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter and police reform.
This week, many police on social media condemned the video of Floyd's arrest, saying they'd been trained never to knee a suspect in the neck, or maintain pressure on someone's back longer than necessary.
We are also trained to get people, as soon as safe and feasible, up off the ground and into a car, or at the very least into the recovery position on their side. There are several opportunities in this video to do just that, but it never happens, and a man dies.— Bike Cop (@jUsT_A_bIkE_cOp) May 26, 2020
Jack Ryan, a retired police captain with Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute, trains officers around the country. He posted a video reminder for officers.
"We ought to have it stamped, or maybe a tattoo, on the back of our hand, that as soon as the person is subdued or restrained, then get off them.... get them into an upright position or on their side to facilitate breathing," he says in the video.
Ryan says this message has been muddied in recent years by dueling studies about whether positional asphyxia is a real threat. Some courts have accepted arguments that it's not a physiological reality, and one police academy trainer told NPR that he tells his cadets that positional asphyxia has been, quote, "debunked."
In the U.S., training and tactics are still largely defined by local departments, police academies and, to a lesser degree, state boards. The result is a patchwork of approaches to questions like this.
"Part of the problem is the lack of centralized, specific guidance," says Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who now specializes in questions of police use-of-force at the University of South Carolina Law School.
"But I don't think that's the entire problem," he said. "I think part of the problem is also a very strong cultural resistance to criticizing other cops."
Stoughton says one of the most important failures in the Minneapolis video from Monday was the fact that other officers did not intervene or even appear to say anything to Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd's neck.
Walter Katz, an expert in police reform and oversight with Arnold Ventures, says he's even more dismayed by Chauvin's indifference to the anguished complaints from bystanders.
"People were yelling at him as to what he was doing, and he continued to do so," Katz says. "To me that is not a training issue. To me that is a reflection of a culture issue."
He says questions of tactics matter less here than the officers' attitude toward the person being restrained.
"If there's a belief that some members of the community deserve less dignity than others, these types of things will keep on happening," Katz says.
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Charging documents against Officer Chauvin say an autopsy of George Floyd show that the effects of being restrained by police likely contributed to his death. In recent years, many police departments have trained officers to be alert to the risks of restraining people facedown like this. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the Minneapolis Police Department has been here before.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Ten years ago, a report of a 28-year-old black man acting strangely brought Minneapolis officers to a YMCA. There, they subdued an agitated David Smith, tasing him then cuffing him facedown on the hardwood of a basketball court.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible.)
KASTE: One officer captured the scene on a personal camera. They kept him facedown, a knee to the back, even after he stopped responding.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You gonna (ph) talk to us (unintelligible)? Hey, you gonna talk to us? What's wrong with you?
KASTE: He died a few days later. Minneapolis settled for $3 million. Bob Bennett was the lawyer on the case, and he says the Minneapolis Police Department also promised at the time to do more training for officers in how to restrain people safely. That's why it was such a shock to him to see this video of what happened to George Floyd on Monday.
BOB BENNETT: I actually thought I was watching the same activity. The parallels are so stark.
KASTE: Bennett assumed the Minneapolis department did the extra training, but now he can't be sure. There has been more emphasis nationally on teaching cops about the dangers of restraining suspects facedown, especially in the years after the death of Eric Garner, whose words - I can't breathe - became a rallying cry for police reform. A lot of police are on Twitter and other social media right now talking about how they were trained never to do what was done to Floyd. Jack Ryan, a retired police captain who trains officers around the country, posted this video reminder for officers.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JACK RYAN: We ought to have stamped - maybe a tattoo on the back of our hand - that as soon as the person is subdued or restrained, then get off them. Get them into an upright position or on their side to facilitate breathing.
KASTE: But Ryan says this message has been muddied in recent years because of dueling studies about positional asphyxia. That's the idea that holding a suspect in a certain position too long can smother him. Some courts have rejected this idea, and one police academy trainer told NPR that he tells his cadets that positional asphyxia has been, quote, "debunked." Given this debate and the decentralized nature of American policing, there just isn't a clear national rule about this.
SETH STOUGHTON: Part of the problem is a lack of centralized specific guidance. But I don't think that's the entire problem.
KASTE: Seth Stoughton is a former cop. Now, he's at the University of South Carolina Law School, where he specializes in the use of force by police.
STOUGHTON: I think part of the problem is also a very strong cultural resistance to criticizing other cops.
KASTE: He says you can see that in the video from Monday, as an officer stands by and says nothing to the colleague who's pressing his knee into Floyd's neck. Walter Katz, an expert in police oversight and reform, agrees. And what's shocking to him in the video is the officer's apparent indifference to the complaints from bystanders.
WALTER KATZ: People were yelling at him after what he was doing, and he continued to do so. To me, that is not a training issue. To me, that is a reflection of a culture issue.
KASTE: Katz says attitudes like this undermine the effort to reform American police.
KATZ: If there is a belief that some members of the community deserve less dignity than others, these types of things will keep on happening.
KASTE: He thinks as long as there are officers with this mentality, and as long as they feel their colleagues will cover for them, then tactics and training are almost beside the point. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.