By Airielle Lowe
Derek Chauvin’s first words defending his treatment of George Floyd came not facing the jury that convicted him of murder, but at the neighborhood intersection in Minneapolis where he’d kept his knee on Floyd’s neck until he passed out and later died.
“We’ve got to control this guy because he’s a sizable guy,” and “it looks like he’s probably on something,” Chauvin told a bystander. The exchange between the two men, who’d met the week before while Chauvin was on patrol, was recorded on the officer’s body camera and played at the trial.
Chauvin chose not to testify. Yet, the inference that he squeezed Floyd’s neck between his knee and the street for so long because he feared being overpowered by a larger person whose strength could be amped up if he had consumed drugs became a cornerstone of Chauvin’s courtroom strategy. It was familiar to some.
“Depicting Black male victims of police violence as drug-addled criminals with brute strength is not new,” said Paul Butler, a Georgetown University law professor, former federal prosecutor, and the author of “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.”
“It worked in 1992, when a jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of assault after they struck Rodney King with a baton 56 times and kicked him seven times,” Butler wrote in an opinion article in The Washington Post before the jury convicted Chauvin.
Once this jury had spoken, the similarities seemed obvious. “The thought of a Black man as an inherent threat, a Black body as an inherent threat, that’s what Derek Chauvin’s defense tried to use in his defense,” MSNBC’s Joy Reid said minutes after the verdict was announced and Chauvin left the courtroom, his hands cuffed behind his back as Floyd’s had been when he died.
“It’s the same kind of defense that was mounted in the Rodney King case,” Reid said, “the Black superman who, no matter how much violence you commit against his body, can raise up—even from the dead, in the case of George Floyd—and pose a threat.”
That contention was a frequent refrain of attorney Eric Nelson and some of the expert witnesses he called in defense of Chauvin, who at 5’9” and 140 pounds, is half a foot shorter and 80 pounds lighter than Floyd.
The 12 jurors deliberated for only nine hours before concluding as one that Chauvin, not drugs nor any effort by Floyd to obstruct, resist or evade arrest, killed him. They found Chauvin guilty on two charges of murder and one of manslaughter. He is to be sentenced in June.
In the wake of the conviction, some spoke less about Chauvin and more of Floyd.
“I hope we gave him justice. Hope he’s looking down and proud of what the jury did, that we did our best, that we didn’t disappoint him,” alternate juror Linda Christensen told The New York Times. Christensen sat through the trial, but was dismissed before deliberations began. She was the sole juror to talk to reporters shortly after the verdict was announced.
Philonise Floyd, one of George’s younger brothers, said he was comforted by the verdict and optimistic about what it meant. “Today, we are able to breathe again. Justice for George means freedom for all,” he said at a news conference in Minneapolis.
Still, there were divided opinions among others on what the verdict’s impact would be on policing as Rodney King, George Floyd’s family, and the nation have come to know it.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken as the trial was ending found that Americans remained near evenly split in their opinions of whether police are adequately trained to avoid excessive use of force.
Some 60 percent of those interviewed said police must be better held to account for mistreatment of Black people, while 33 percent said the country was doing too many things that get in the way of cops doing their job. Democrats, Black people, women and younger persons surveyed generally were less supportive than their opposites of police and the current ways of doing things.
Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat pressing for Senate action on a House-passed bill intended to improve police accountability, seemed buoyed. “I am cautiously optimistic,” Bass said. “Step one is the verdict; step two is the sentencing. Now we have to focus on transforming policing in the United States,” she said.
Even if it becomes law, however, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 would not address some issues in cases as distant as that of Rodney King, yet as close as that of Daunte Wright—a Black man killed by a White police officer six blocks from alternative juror Christensen’s home in Brooklyn Center, a suburb just over the Minneapolis city line, while the Chauvin trial was going on.
Morgan State University professor and MSNBC commentator Jason Johnson appeared at best more cautious than optimistic in his assessment.
“What this says to me is that in order to get a nominal sense of justice in this country, that a Black man has to be murdered—on the air, viewed by the entire world; [and] there has to be a year’s worth of protests, and a phalanx of other White police officers to tell one White officer that he was wrong—to get a scintilla of justice,” Johnson said. “This is not the system working,” Johnson said. “This is a wake-up call.”
Although several Minneapolis police officials—including the department’s chief—testified that, time and again, Chauvin’s treatment of Floyd was at odds with department policy and training, not all he did was uncommon.
The day after the trial ended, U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced a comprehensive federal investigation into the policies and practices of the department, including its use of force and treatment of persons of color.
Minneapolis police have used various types of force against Black persons seven times more often than against Whites, The New York Times reported last year. “When Minneapolis police get physical—with kicks, neck holds, punches, shoves, takedowns, Mace, Tasers or other forms of muscle—nearly 60 percent of the time the person subject to that force is Black,” the report added. “And that is according to the city’s own figures.” Since 2015, “body-weight pinning has been used about 2,200 times against black people, more than twice the number of times it was used against whites,” the newspaper found.
Chauvin and the other officers had placed Floyd in what was referred to as a prone restraint position—pinned face down in a veritable vise, with three police officers on top, the hard pavement underneath, and Chauvin’s knee on his neck. It is a restraint intended to make it harder to breath and hence harder to move, but it can be lethal.
A cardiologist called by prosecutors as an expert witness who said he had viewed video evidence of the incident said other officers on the scene had asked Chauvin whether Floyd shouldn’t be taken out of the restraint and turned onto his side so he could breathe more easily. “No, just leave him,” was Chauvin’s response, cardiologist Jonathan Rich of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago testified.
Prosecutors also cited a telephone call that Chauvin made to the police sergeant on duty after the ambulance had taken Floyd away. “I was just going to call and have you come out to our scene here,” Chauvin told the sergeant. “We just had to hold a guy down. He was going crazy…He wouldn’t go in the back of the squad [car].”
The sergeant, David Pleoger, said Chauvin and the officers failed to follow department guidelines. “When Mr. Floyd was no longer offering up any resistance to the officers, they could have ended the restraint,” Pleoger told the jury. “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.”
Throughout the trial, Chauvin’s lawyer pressed the contention that the actual cause of death was not asphyxiation, as the medical examiner had concluded, but heavy drug use that had weakened Floyd’s body and rendered it vulnerable to the stress of what was going on.
Chauvin’s remark to the bystander that Floyd was “probably on something” was echoed in the initial police press statement of what had occurred after officers responded to a report of “a forgery in progress” and were told that the suspect was nearby and “appeared to be under the influence” on the evening of May 25 last year.
After complying with a police order to get out of a car he was in, Floyd “physically resisted officers,” the statement, read. “Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noticed he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”
The statement did not mention any of Chauvin’s interaction with Floyd, but did say that at “no time were weapons of any type used by anyone involved in the incident.”
At the trial, Barry Brodd, a former police officer called as an expert witness for the defense, mentioned Floyd’s size and muscular build in his testimony, and said that persons high on drugs could exhibit “superhuman strength” and act as if they “don’t feel pain.” He described the behavior as a medical condition known as excited delirium.
Earlier, a Minneapolis police department health care trainer testified that excited delirium could be triggered by cardiovascular disease or drug abuse. Evidence of both were found in Floyd’s body.
But a forensic medicine expert who works as a police surgeon for the Louisville police department testified that Floyd met none of the 10 criteria developed by the American College of Emergency Physicians required for a diagnosis of excited delirium.
Although not necessarily a factor in the Chauvin case, excited delirium and the behavior it is said to cause was cited specifically in two other recent deaths that have drawn attention to police treatment of Black men who died in police custody.
Daniel Prude was having a psychotic episode on a Rochester street last year when family members called police for help. As police struggled to get Prude under control, an officer forced him to the ground and kept him face down in a manner similar to the way Floyd was restrained. Prude passed out at least once, and was resuscitated, but died days later.
Initial police reports characterized Prude’s death as the result of an overdose of PCP, which he was known to have been using. The county medical examiner, however, had ruled that Prude was in a state of excited delirium, and that his death was a homicide caused in part by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”
Elijah McClain stood 5-foot-six and weighed the same as Chauvin, 140 pounds. He was walking home from a convenience store in Aurora, Colo. in 2019 when police stopped him and struggled to arrest him. They placed him in a chokehold and medical personnel who arrived later injected him with a heavy dose of a sedative. McClain died a few days afterward. The county coroner said the cause of death was “undetermined.”
Body cameras of officers on the scene recorded them remarking that McClain had been “acting crazy;” that he was “definitely on something,” had “incredible, crazy strength,” and that at one point, three officers had to be on top of him, The New York Times reported.
The sedative injected at the scene was Ketamine, which, according to the guidelines of the local fire department, is appropriate to administer to someone acting aggressively, hallucinating or showing signs of extraordinary strength and endurance during a struggle because that person may have excited delirium, USA Today reported.
One of the last witnesses Chauvin’s defense called was former Maryland chief medical examiner David Fowler, who testified that Floyd’s death may have been due to exposure to exhaust from the squad car next to him while he was pinned down.
On cross examination, however, Fowler acknowledged that he wasn’t aware when he made that suggestion that the car was a hybrid model, and that he wasn’t sure if its motor was running while Floyd was under restraint.
Before the trial began, Fowler’s name had figured in a related controversy among the relatively small nationwide community of medical examiners.
One group of examiners had criticized the claim that Floyd died because of drug use and underlying health conditions as “a prime example of how forensic pathology has failed to do enough to counter its own subjectivity in decisions such as whether to classify a death in police custody as a homicide,” The New York Times reported.
The Journal of Forensic Sciences had published a study that measured bias among forensic pathologists and showed how “medically irrelevant information like the victim’s race can sway” decisions. Fowler was one of three persons who took the rare step of asking that that the study be retracted, which the publishers declined to do, The Times reported.
Fowler’s assertion that Floyd’s cause of death should be described as “undetermined” rather than a homicide has prompted top officials in Maryland to launch an investigation into all of the deaths in police custody he oversaw during his 17 years in office, from 2002-2019.
A Canadian researcher, writing before the trial but discussing early reports of the circumstances of Floyd’s death, argued that police use of force against Black people is subconscious racial profiling that cops, courts and some communities have come to accept as reasonable, and as standard operating procedure.
“Officers rarely stand trial for these incidents, and they’re convicted more rarely still,” Ainsley Hawthorn, a sensory studies expert wrote in Psychology Today. “When the victim was Black—even if they were unarmed, even if they were just a child—jurors frequently conclude that police were justified in using lethal force.
“Why? Partly due to the misconception that Black people are preternaturally strong and fast and therefore unusually dangerous—so dangerous that a trained police officer could be excused for launching a preemptive attack.”
Body size may have been circumstantial factors in three other relatively recent high-profile fatal encounters between police officers and Black men that resulted in no charges.
The New York police officer who in July 2014 wrestled Eric Garner to the ground and placed him in a chokehold, after which Graner died, told a grand jury that he acted in part because “he became fearful as he found himself sandwiched between a much larger man and a storefront window.” Garner was 6’3” and weighed 350 pounds.
The Ferguson, Mo. police officer who, that same year, shot and killed Michael Brown from about two feet away was about the same height as Brown, 6’3.” But the officer weighed 210 pounds and Brown weighed 290. The officer said he fired in self-defense as Brown moved toward him.
Neither Garner nor Brown was armed when they were killed, but Tamir Rice was holding a toy gun when a Cleveland police officer shot and killed him in November 2014. Rice was only 12 years old, but stood 5’7” tall and weighed 170 pounds.
“It is likely that Tamir, whose size made him look much older and who had been warned his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day, either intended to hand it over to the officers or show them it wasn’t a real gun,” prosecutor Tim McGinty said as he announced that no charges would be brought against the two officers involved.