The way a Minneapolis police officer restrained George Floyd before he died — placing his knee on Floyd’s neck while the man lay on his stomach — is widely discredited by law enforcement experts because it can cause suffocation.
But the technique is allowed in Minneapolis.
Floyd gasped for air and called for help, but officer Derek Chauvin calmly kept his position for at least eight minutes, including after Floyd stopped speaking or moving. Other officers stood by as bystanders berated them and pleaded for them to check for a pulse.
Horrific video of the incident has sparked protests and looting in the Twin Cities and around the country. The four officers involved were fired; Chauvin was arrested Friday and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
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None of the law enforcement experts who spoke with USA TODAY defended the way Floyd was held down, calling it excessive and uncommon.
“Regardless of what Mr. Floyd allegedly did or didn’t do, there’s no reason to put a knee on the neck,” said John Peters Jr., president of the Institute for the Prevention and Management of In-Custody Deaths, which trains police academy instructors on use of force.
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Jon Shane, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who specializes in use-of-force studies, said officers are allowed to use deadly force only when a suspect presents an imminent danger. “I didn’t see anything in that video that showed a deadly force situation.”
Andy Scoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police, which represents hundreds of police chiefs, called the actions “appalling” and said his association has never advocated for training that teaches an officer to place a knee on someone’s neck.
But the Minneapolis Police Department allows the use of two types of neck restraints as “non-deadly” force options for officers who have received the proper training.
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The technique is widely recognized as dangerous. Department of Justice guidance on use of force says “unexplained in-custody deaths are caused more often than is generally known by a little-known phenomenon called positional asphyxia,” when someone cannot breathe in a certain position.
“As soon as the suspect is handcuffed, get him off his stomach,” the Justice Department advises.
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The report says a suspect may appear to be resisting if the airway is blocked: “The natural reaction to oxygen deficiency occurs — the person struggles more violently.”
Lawrence Heiskell, an emergency physician and reserve police officer with the Palm Springs Police Department, wrote an article last year warning officers that keeping a suspect face-down on the ground could be lethal.
Heiskell told USA TODAY he’s dumbfounded by what happened in Minneapolis.
An officer might be compelled to put his knee on a suspect’s neck during a struggle, Heiskell said. However, he said he cannot imagine why Floyd was held face-down on the ground for minutes, or why Chauvin kept pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck.
“When somebody says, ‘I can’t breathe,’ that is a medical emergency and you get EMS to treat them right way,” Peters said. “Because at that point, the suspect becomes a patient.”
Just because someone is talking doesn’t mean they can breathe, said Peters, who has offered a free online course to thousands of officers on positional asphyxia.
Several experts said they suspect positional asphyxia played a role in Floyd’s death, but the medical examiner has not yet said how Floyd died. According to the fire department’s incident report, Floyd didn’t have a pulse and was unresponsive in the ambulance.
Minneapolis is an outlier in allowing neck restraints
Most police departments in the U.S. don’t allow neck restraints, said Andrew Scott, an expert witness on the use of force and former police chief of Boca Raton, Florida.
Minneapolis does. Its manual allows “compressing one or both sides of a person’s neck with an arm or leg without applying direct pressure to the trachea or airway.”
That’s allowed in order to control someone with “light to moderate pressure” or “with the intention of rendering the person unconscious by applying adequate pressure.” The latter act is authorized only to protect officer lives with a suspect who is “actively aggressive” and cannot be controlled by lesser methods.
Scott said he’s shocked that’s allowed.
“I have never seen an agency in writing promote that type of force in such a critical area that is so susceptible to damage or death,” Scott said, “and I’ve traveled the country and seen many use of force policies.”
Tom Aveni, an ex-cop and co-founder of the Police Policy Studies Council, has trained law enforcement officers since 1983. “I have not seen anyone teach the use of a knee to the neck,” he said.
Moreover, the Minneapolis Police Department’s policy uses outdated terminology, Scott said. There’s no such thing as a “non-deadly” force option. The proper terminology is “less-lethal,” Scott said, which recognizes that force has potential to kill if misused.
“Law enforcement has realized over the years that any type of force could potentially kill somebody — even too much pepper spray,” Scott said.
At police academies across the country, officers typically receive about 40 hours of training on use of force, Scott and Peters said. But officers should also go through annual training.
The Minnesota Professional Peace Officer Education System said in a statement Wednesday that the tactics seen in the video “do not appear to reflect the training that students receive.”
The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis and a Minneapolis police spokesman did not respond Thursday to requests for comment.
Officer training programs became a point of tension in Minneapolis last year when Mayor Jacob Frey banned officers from taking “warrior-style” training courses, saying it encourages officers to adopt a survivalist mindset at odds with fostering community trust.
The police union said it would work with a national group to offer the training anyway, the Star-Tribune reported.
The officer who shot Philando Castile in 2016 during a traffic stop in nearby Falcon Heights had taken one of the courses. The officer opened fire on Castile — with his girlfriend and four-year-old in the car — within seconds of pulling him over. The officer was charged with three felonies and acquitted on all charges.
Knee-to-neck restraint a ‘wanton infliction of pain’
Eric Hageman, a Minneapolis attorney who has successfully sued police officers in brutality cases, said the Minneapolis Police Department is notorious for racial problems and use-of-force violations. In one case he tried, Hageman said, jurors ruled the department was “deliberately indifferent” to civil rights violations.
In recent years, most complaints against the department — and the overwhelming majority of complaints about excessive use of force — were filed by people of color, according to data from the Minneapolis Office of Police Conduct Review. Black residents filed twice as many use of force complaints as white, although there are three times more white residents.
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Hageman said he believes the knee-to-neck technique was taught in the distant past but abandoned decades ago. He called what transpired during Floyd’s arrest “inexplicable.”
“It’s not police work at this point. It’s just a wanton infliction of pain and, ultimately, of death,” he said. “It’s the best example of what’s rotten with the Minneapolis Police Department.”
Floyd isn’t the first person who has died after being pinned down by a Minneapolis police officer. In 2010, 28-year-old David Smith died after an officer pinned him down with a knee to the back for about four minutes. The city settled a lawsuit for $3 million, said Robert Bennett, a Minneapolis attorney who represented Smith’s family.
As part of the settlement, the city agreed to train officers on the proper use of force, Bennett said. He doesn’t know whether that training ever took place.
On a national level, no public agency tracks police use of force or deadly force. In 2018, the FBI announced the launch of a national use-of-force data collection program, but no reports have been released.
According to a Washington Post database of all fatal shootings by police officers, about 1,000 people have been fatally shot by an officer every year since 2015, with black Americans accounting for a disproportionate number.
There have been at least 61 fatal police shootings in Minnesota since 2015, according to the database. Many have been in the Twin Cities area.