Explainer: Was officer's knee on Floyd's neck authorized?
A critical factor for jurors to consider at a former Minneapolis police officer's trial in George Floyd's death is whether he violated the department's policy on neck restraints when he knelt on Floyd's neck.
The Minneapolis Police Department banned all forms of neck restraints and chokeholds weeks after Floyd's death, but at the time of his May 25 arrest by Derek Chauvin and other officers, certain neck restraints were permitted — provided certain guidelines and conditions were followed.
Here is a look at the policy, which was a focus of testimony Monday, and how it could factor into a verdict for Chauvin, who is charged with murder and manslaughter:
What neck restraints did Minneapolis police authorize?
The department policy, in place for at least eight years at the time, divided permissible neck restraints into two categories, according to court filings and testimony Monday by the city police chief, Medaria Arradondo. Neck restraints were defined in the policy as a “non-deadly force option.”
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One, called a “conscious neck restraint,” was for light pressure applied to the neck to help control a person without rendering unconsciousness. It was permitted for a person actively resisting.
The other was an “unconscious neck restraint,” in which officers could use their arms or legs to knock out a person by pressing carotid arteries on either side of the neck, blocking blood flow to the brain. The policy called for it to be used only for a person “exhibiting active aggression” or actively resisting when lesser attempts to control the person had failed or were likely to fail.
Police guidelines also instructed officers, at the first possible opportunity, to turn people on their sides once they were handcuffed and under control to avoid “positional asphyxia,” in which breathing becomes labored in a prone position and can lead to death. The city had pledged to emphasize to officers the dangers of positional asphyxia as part of a $3 million settlement in the 2010 death of David Smith. Minneapolis officers subdued Smith with a Taser and pinned him face down on the floor for several minutes with their knees on his back.
Training manuals also instructed officers to be attentive to whether a suspect was having difficulty breathing. Chauvin and the other officers never turned Floyd on his side, even as he said he couldn’t breathe 27 times before his body went limp.
What do attorneys say?
Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson, in a pretrial filing, said Chauvin followed policy and "did exactly as he was trained to do.” The filing included a photo in department training materials of a trainer with a knee on the neck of an instructor playing a suspect.
Prosecutors have already put supervisory officers on the stand to testify that, even if Chauvin pinning Floyd with his knee fell within policy, doing so for 9 minutes and 29 seconds did not. In their pretrial filing, they said Chauvin and two other officers held their positions for four minutes after Floyd lost consciousness — and two minutes beyond when he no longer had a pulse.
Witnesses also testified to the danger of Floyd's position and to frequent department training on the importance of moving someone as quickly as possible into a recovery position. The photo included in Nelson's filing included text that read: “Place the subject in the recovery position to alleviate positional asphyxia.”
Prosecutors highlighted video from former officer Thomas Lane's body camera on which he can be heard suggesting to Chauvin after Floyd lost consciousness that he be turned on his side, showing that Lane seemed to grasp the danger. Chauvin responded: “Stay … put where you got him.”
Which type of restraint was Chauvin trying to perform?
That’s unclear. Donald Williams, a former mixed martial arts fighter who saw Chauvin restraining Floyd, testified last week that he believed Chauvin was attempting what he and other MMA fighters know as a blood choke — a permitted move in competitions in which carotid arteries are pressed for no more than 10 seconds to render an opponent unconscious.
“The officer on top was shimmying to actually get the final choke in,” Williams told jurors.
The police chief told testified Monday he believed Chauvin was attempting a conscious neck retraint but held it far longer than department policy allowed.
How much pressure was Chauvin applying?
That’s also in dispute.
One witness testified she saw Chauvin lift his right leg at one point, shifting his full weight onto Floyd’s neck with his left leg. Another said Chauvin never eased up, either by putting a hand on the ground or leaning on a squad car next to him.
Nelson said a medical examiner found no bruising of Floyd’s neck or any injury to neck structures. “Clearly, Mr. Chauvin was cautious about the amount of pressure he used to restrain Mr. Floyd,” one defense filing said.
Nelson has also made clear he will argue that Floyd died because of drugs he had taken, not because of Chauvin's actions. An autopsy found fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd's system.
Experts on the neck restraint
Jack Ryan, a Rhode Island lawyer and former police officer trained in chokeholds who was an expert for plaintiffs in the Smith family lawsuit, questioned in a phone interview whether it ever made sense for Minneapolis and other police departments to allow blood chokes. When officers try to execute one on a flailing suspect, it can go wrong quickly, with officers inadvertently blocking a suspect’s airway.
A consensus has grown over the years, accelerated by Floyd’s case, that it’s not practical to provide officers the constant training they need to master and maintain the art of the blood choke.
“It’s a move that requires precision in training, which means these are very perishable skills,” Scott Allen DeFoe, a former Los Angeles police officer trained in martial arts, testifying for plaintiffs in a 2019 lawsuit in California against police who used chokeholds.