Chauvin trial: police brutality or lack of care?
Derek Chauvin never put George Floyd in a choke hold. That was the conclusion of Lt. Johnny Mercil, the most senior official in the use of force training at the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). While it didn’t get much media coverage, this testimony on Tuesday, from the state’s most official witness on police defensive tactics, was astounding. Regardless of its torpedoing of a relentless account of Floyd’s death, it undermined the prosecution’s confident assurances that expert testimony on the use of force would dispel any doubt that Chauvin killed Floyd. This is not to underestimate the evidence that Chauvin used more force than was necessary in the circumstances. But it is important to clarify the type of force that was actually used. We also need to take note of how the accusation turned, even though the media coverage did not. As for the murder, this is not a ‘strangled to death’ case; this is a case of “non-provision of compulsory medical assistance”. In a choke hold, a person’s ability to breathe is intentionally obstructed. We cannot say that a police officer can never apply a choke hold, as a cop can use all the force necessary to save their life if faced with an active, aggressive and deadly threat – and it depends on the circumstances. Yet that is not the issue in Chauvin’s case. Contrary to popular belief, he never stifled Floyd. Instead, Chauvin applied a neck grip. Unlike a choke, a neck plug is not intended to prevent a person from breathing. The goal is to control a person. Depending on the threat posed by a suspect, a police neck grab can include anything from pressure just enough to persuade a person to submit, to cutting off blood flow to the brain in order to induce temporary loss of consciousness (similar to what is sometimes seen in mixed martial arts matches). It is essential to understand that neck holds are legitimate tactics if applied in the right circumstances. To the extent that it has been claimed, or at least conclusively assumed, that Chauvin applied an illegal tactic, or restraint technique that violated MPD policy, this is not true. During the appearances of several MPD witnesses, an infamous still photo (State Exhibit 17) was displayed: Chauvin appearing to kneel on Floyd’s neck. Witnesses for the MPD generally viewed this image with theatrical disdain, a sneer: “We don’t train this. As Mercil explained, however, there is a noticeable difference between what is trained and what is allowed. The MPD does not train the police to hit a suspect on the head with a coffee maker. But if a suspect tries to tear out a cop’s eyes and the coffee maker is within reach, the cop is allowed to grab him and hit the suspect over the head. More specifically, while a particular restraint technique, such as a neck grip, is permitted, the fact that the technique applied by an officer does not reflect the training manual does not make the grip itself inadmissible. The MPD trains the neck holds with a preference for applying them with the arms and hands, as this usually provides more control. As Mercil explained, this does not mean that it is forbidden to use the legs. Indeed, MPD could show such a leg technique to recruits, as it could be used against them; but the MPD does not order officers to use neck wedges in this way. On this point, it should be noted some surprising testimonies given on Wednesday on the physical stature of Chauvin. Floyd’s stature was widely noticed: tall, muscular, a tight footballer and basketball forward in his youth, later a nightclub bouncer, standing six and a half feet tall in most reports, and its proportions described as six feet four inches and 223 pounds in the state autopsy report. What hasn’t gotten much attention are Chauvin’s proportions. And now we see why. He is a light man. As part of his interview with investigators right after Floyd’s death, he weighed just 140 pounds. State prosecutors are obviously concerned about this difference – the fact that Floyd had an 83-pound weight advantage over Chauvin. It becomes much easier to understand why Chauvin, even with three other cops, couldn’t control Floyd as the latter forcibly resisted his arrest in the team car and squirmed in the street. Prosecutors obtained from the lead investigator an estimate that Chauvin’s patroller belt (gun, ammo chargers, radio, flashlight, mass canister, etc.) must weigh 30 or 40 pounds. They need to put the weight on because they understandably fear that the jury will not accept the idea that a little guy like Chauvin actually strangled a big guy like Floyd. And, of course, that’s not what happened. But the weight differential makes it easier to understand why Chauvin might rely more on the strength of his legs than trying to restrain Floyd with his arms – having been unable to restrain him moments before, despite help from three other trained police officers. None of this would matter, of course, if the coercive tactics employed by Chauvin, however applied, were inadmissible. But neck grips are permitted in appropriate circumstances. I put that last item in italics because that is really the problem in this case. The police can use two types of neck holds. They are described as unconscious and conscious. The first is called unconscious because the agent tries to make the person unconscious. Obviously, since the use of force by the police must be reasonable, it follows that unconscious neck grips are only permitted in dire situations, when a person creates such a risk of death or serious injury. that a reasonable agent would think that unconsciousness was the appropriate way to quell the threat. This is not the Floyd / Chauvin situation. Chauvin did not apply an unconscious grip to the neck, which calls for simultaneously exerting pressure on both sides of the neck to cut off the blood flow. As explained by Mercil, a martial arts expert, an unconscious neck grip can work in seconds if applied correctly – although it falls under the category of lethal force as it can kill or cause irreparable damage if applied. is poorly applied. What Chauvin applied was a conscious grip of the neck. The point of this tactic is to control the suspect, not to knock him out. As the police learn in training, and as most of us know from common sense and experience, gaining physical control over parts of another person’s body comes down to gain physical control over the whole person. The neck is one of these parts. Police officers are trained to be especially careful in handling a person’s neck, as serious injury can otherwise result. But most unconscious neck holds are not applications of lethal force. By themselves, they do not even make a person unconscious, let alone cause suffocation. I emphasize “by themselves” because this is where we come to the big problem in the case of Chauvin. Defense attorney Eric Nelson has done an effective job of showing that appearances can be deceiving. The photos and videos taken from angles that appear to show Chauvin pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck are gruesome. But videos shot from other angles, especially body camera footage worn by police, show that Chauvin was primarily applying pressure to the trapezius area – between the shoulder blades and the base of the neck. When applying a grip like this, aimed at control and not unconsciousness, the police are trained to focus on this area of the upper trapezius, paying attention to the neck but, naturally, unable to avoid completely the neck. It’s also clear that Chauvin wasn’t pushing all of his 140 pounds on Floyd, just enough (with the help of two others, without also pressing down with all of their weight) to keep the handcuffed man down. Floyd was able to move his neck and speak. If that was all there was to do, Chauvin would have to be acquitted – in fact, the case shouldn’t have gone to criminal charges. But of course, that’s not all. Neck holds are supposed to be temporary. There is no time limit for them. The rule of reason applies. However, once the control objective has been reached, the police are immediately trained to roll the subject onto their side (“lateral recovery” position). This is because even if weight pressure was not applied, it can become difficult for a person to breathe if held for too long in a supine position – face down, with the chest and stomach on the surface. This is especially the case if a person has cardio-respiratory problems, as Floyd did. Rolling the person onto their side opens the airways, making it easier to breathe. Notably, as prosecutors try to prove that the police suffocated Floyd, their case is not what you would think it is based on the political narrative of the knee-to-neck strangulation – the horror story. racialized about a white cop persecuting a black victim. Floyd was not smothered; he was kept lying down for too long. Her breathing became labored and her heart stopped. Now, it is fair enough from a police point of view to observe that resistant and detained suspects often claim that they cannot breathe and often say things that are not true in the hope of getting out of their predicament. The police do not have to credit these complaints; but neither can they dismiss them out of hand. They have to weigh them against other objective evidence – and that is no more objective than not being able to pick up a pulse, which happened with Floyd, about three minutes before the ambulance arrived. The police follow the “in my custody, in my custody” standard. Even if a suspect has resisted arrest, if he falls into medical distress, cops are trained to begin emergency medical first aid. If an inmate suddenly has no pulse, the police are supposed to start chest compressions (their CPR training). Unless someone is obviously dead, cops are supposed to continue the cutbacks until someone with higher medical training – usually a paramedic – arrives on the scene and can take over. Chauvin and his fellow officers never even started the compressions, even though they knew Floyd was pulseless and may not be breathing regularly. Chauvin’s defense offers several rationalizations for this dereliction, including (as discussed in more detail in my article yesterday) that Floyd’s death was primarily attributable to a drug overdose. I will analyze them in a separate article. But I will conclude with how the case has changed – or, at least, with an observation that it played out in the real court much differently than how it was told in the public opinion court. . Basically, it is not a case of police brutality. This is a case of police failure in care. Even a blatant failure of care, while reprehensible, is not the same as aggressive murder. If someone blatantly fails to take action, they have an obligation to take, and death results in manslaughter, not murder. Does it matter, however, when the crowds cry out for blood?