EXPLAINER: Analyzing use of force by police officers
As former Officer Derek Chauvin stands trial in George Floyd’s death, a central question is whether he followed the Minneapolis Police Department’s guidelines on the use of force — and used that force reasonably.
The department’s longest-tenured officer sharply criticized Chauvin’s actions in testimony Friday, at one point calling Chauvin’s lengthy restraint of Floyd “totally unnecessary.”
Lt. Richard Zimmerman laid out a range of actions that officers can take in using force. He joined a retired Minneapolis police sergeant who also testified for the prosecution, as well as use-of-force experts interviewed by The Associated Press, in questioning Chauvin’s actions.
Zimmerman, who has been on the Minneapolis force since 1985, told jurors that department policy spells out the use-of-force guidelines officers are expected to follow.
The lowest level, he said, is a police officer simply showing up in uniform at an event. One step up is using verbal skills to gather information and try to defuse a situation, he said.
“The next step would be like a soft, soft technique, escorting the person by their arm, that type of thing,” Zimmerman said. “The next level would be a hard technique. That’s where you would use your, uh, you know, you maybe have to use your Mace or handcuffs, that kind of thing.”
Finally, Zimmerman said, comes deadly force.
WAS CHAUVIN’S USE OF THE RESTRAINT REASONABLE?
Zimmerman’s testimony suggested not. Asked by a prosecutor what officers should do when a person has been handcuffed and is less combative, Zimmerman said officers “may just have them sit down on a curb or the idea is to calm the person down. And if they are not a threat to you at that point, you try to, you know, to help them so that they’re not as upset as they may have been in the beginning.”
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, sought to show that Floyd could still have been a threat to officers. He also noted that the decision to use force can depend on outside factors, too, such as whether officers felt threatened by bystanders.
Use-of-force experts have questioned how Chauvin and three other officers handled Floyd after they were called to a report of a person accused of passing a phony $20 bill. Body camera video played at trial shows Floyd saying over and over that he was claustrophobic as he struggled to avoid being forced into a police SUV.
Mylan Masson, who once headed police training at Hennepin Technical College and served on the Minnesota Police Officers Standards and Training Board for more than 20 years, said officers should have been asking whether Floyd knew the bill was counterfeit and whether he had others in his possession.
Masson questioned why they decided to arrest him at all, noting that “he didn’t seem to be a harm to other people.”
“The trajectory of the event could have been slowed down,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina. “There was no rush, no split-second decision. There was no reason to push things.”
Alpert and Masson both questioned why the officers didn’t try to put Floyd into a larger vehicle such as an ambulance or van, given that he said he was claustrophobic.
Police departments nationwide have been trying for years to train officers to avoid violence. In 2016, the Minneapolis Police Department rewrote its use of force policy to emphasize the “sanctity of life,” and began training officers in de-escalation — calming people down to prevent violence.
WHY DOES IT MATTER AT TRIAL?
Chauvin, 45, is charged with murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Prosecutors say the since-fired police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes, 29 seconds, as he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe. The most serious charge against Chauvin carries up to 40 years in prison.
Prosecutors contend Floyd’s death was caused by Chauvin’s knee. But the defense has argued that Chauvin did what he was trained to do and blame Floyd’s drug use, heart disease, high blood pressure and adrenaline.
Alex Piquero, chairman of the University of Miami’s sociology department, said it is important for prosecutors to show that Chauvin, along with the other officers, made a series of decisions that led to Floyd’s death.
He said police officers often work with limited information and have to make decisions quickly. But he said it’s clear that regardless of what happened before Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, it was wrong.
“This is not the way you want to handle someone who is supposedly trying to pass a counterfeit bill,” he said.
Find AP’s full coverage of the death of George Floyd at: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-george-floyd