Use of Force and the Death of George Floyd

Having been involved in law enforcement for many years, and having testified as a Use of Force expert in Federal and California Superior Courts,I have been watching the developments of the George Floyd incident with a critical eye to the force used against Mr. Floyd. I have discussed the case with peers, and have formed my own opinion, based solely upon admittedly incomplete information.

In saying there is incomplete information, I am admitting I believe that the press in the United States is known to misunderstand and sometimes misrepresent events depending upon the position, political affiliation, or prejudices of the reporter. Because of this, I seek information from multiple news sources and try to extract the personal opinions of reporters from facts generally agreed upon by all witnesses.

As far as I can tell, all sources agree on the following:

The Floyd incident began with police officers being called to a location regarding counterfeit money. Mr. Floyd may have been under the influence of an unknown substance. Mr. Floyd indicated he did not want to be placed in a police car. He was forced to the ground by officers and held there by Officer Chauvin for several minutes. During the time the officer was holding Mr. Floyd on the ground, the officer was holding Mr. Floyd in place using his knee on the suspect’s neck. During this time, Mr. Floyd died. The allegations against the officers involved are that Officer Chauvin contributed to the death of Mr. Floyd by holding his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for an unreasonable length of time, and the cover officers failed to intervene to stop improper application of force.

Force can be used by officers to effect a lawful purpose. For instance, Officers can use reasonable force to subdue an attacker, overcome resistance, effect custody (arrest, detain, and place restraints),and gain compliance with a lawful order.

Reasonable force is best determined by deciding if any other officer who is objective, trained, and competent would find the application of that force to be necessary and lawful given similar facts and circumstances. In other words, would any of 100 or more other trained, objective and competent officers have done the same thing given the same exact situation? If so, then the officer was reasonable.

In this case, the initial application of force appears (only based upon my understanding of events as reported, and not official evidence) to have been appropriate. The officers had cause to be at the scene (they were responding to a citizen’s request for police service), and they had cause to believe Mr. Floyd had committed a crime. The application of restraints was appropriate as Mr. Floyd was being placed under arrest. When Mr. Floyd initially resisted placement in a police car, force was used to overcome the resistance and Mr. Floyd was eventually placed on the ground. It would appear that to this point, force was appropriate. It is after Mr. Floyd reached the ground that the officer(s) actions became inappropriate, in my opinion.

Once Mr. Floyd was on the ground, there were several options available to the officers that would not necessitate a knee applied to the neck for several minutes. The most reasonable and easiest approach could have been to simply sit him up and have him cross his legs, yet remain on the ground. In this sitting position, it is unlikely that Mr. Floyd would have a chance of escape or evasion as long as an officer stood close behind him ready to stop him from standing. Such a position allows the suspect to breathe and gives officers an ability to lessen the need for the application of force.

Did other officers at the incident scene have a duty to intervene when it should have been reasonably apparent that Officer Chauvin was violating policy and possibly causing an injury that could have led to the death of Mr. Floyd? The simple answer, although filled with nuances, is yes. If the officers knew there was a violation, yes. If the officers knew Mr. Floyd was in danger of losing his life, or receiving great bodily injury, yes. The operative issue in my view (again, given little information) is that the cover officers at the scene had to have known that there was a violation. The apparent fact that the other officers did not intervene, might indicate that they had seen such a restraint technique, that is a knee applied to the neck of a restrained suspect, in the past often enough that they did not consider it a problem. It is also possible the cover officers knew there was a violation occurring, but chose not to intervene due to peer pressure, not wanting to seem like a “snitch”, or because they feared reprisals from other officers. It is also possible that the cover officers were not closely watching the actions of Officer Chauvin because they were watching the gathering crowd and bystanders to provide cover to the arresting officer. Regardless the reason, there should have been some intervention when Mr. Floyd began saying he could not breathe.

The final point I would make on this topic is that when an officer places a citizen in restraints, that officer assumes responsibility for the health and safety of the restrained person. That means that if the person complains of any physical discomfort, the officer has the responsibility to give at least some attention to the complaint. For instance a complaint of handcuffs being too tight should always cause the officer who placed the restraints to make a physical inspection of the restraints as soon as safety and security concerns allow for it. If a restrained person complains that they cannot breathe, the officer has the duty to evaluate the person’s physical position, ensure the subject has a clear airway, and is not in a position that could lead to positional asphyxiation. It is my opinion that Officer Chauvin, having improperly placed his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck, should have removed his knee when the complaint was made, and rolled Mr. Floyd to his side, or optimally, placed him in a sitting position.

In discussing this incident with other law enforcement professionals with experience in policing and corrections, I did not find any who believed that Officer Chauvin’s actions were appropriate or reasonable regarding his holding a knee to Mr. Floyd’s neck. A check of law enforcement related groups on social media revealed the same result. There were no officers, active or retired, who thought that Officer Chauvin was appropriate in his application of force, specifically keeping his knee on a subject’s neck for several minutes and until the subject expired.

So, was the use of force by Officer Chauvin reasonable? Many objective, trained, and competent past and present officers would not have done what Officer Chauvin did, and they did not consider as having been necessary to accomplish a lawful purpose. Therefore, I believe the force while initially reasonable transitioned to unnecessary and excessive. Unfortunately, and tragically, a man is dead because officers failed to follow proper procedure, accept responsibility for the life and health of a man they placed in restraints, and act reasonably when the subject indicated he was in distress.

The take away for all officers reading this is simple. YOU have the responsibility to protect the health and safety of any person who is restrained and in your care. That includes giving attention to any complaints of injury or discomfort. Your failure to do so can result in severe and lasting consequences.