Charges brought in George Floyd’s murder, greater work remains around systemic racism, police reforms

Officer Derek Chauvin remained kneeling on Floyd’s neck even after another officer said he couldn’t find Floyd’s pulse.

Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in George Floyd’s death, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced today at a press conference. He expected to bring charges against the other three police officers at the scene who failed to intervene, but those cases are still under review, he said.

People not only want justice for Floyd but they want and deserve systemic change, both to address the underlying problems of structural racism and the long-standing problems at the Minneapolis Police Department that Floyd’s case represents. That work requires that we speak clearly and directly to explain the causes and conditions that led to Floyd’s murder.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman

A number of organizations took the time to issue statements on Floyd’s death prior to today’s charges. Many used safe, generic language, failing to name the problem before us.

Typically such statements express sadness and grief over the “loss of life” or refer to Floyd’s “tragic and senseless death.” Some talk about the importance of “equity” and “justice.” Some go as far to name our “country’s history of institutional and systemic racism.”

Yet many civic leaders and institutions failed to criticize or even name the Minneapolis Police Department in their statements. Statements that express regret around the “loss of life” deflect from what really happened: It was a police killing.

We now have a criminal charge made against Officer Chauvin. If we fail to speak clearly now about what happened, we are part of the problem.

Here are the details from the charges, filed this afternoon.

A CUP Foods employee called 9-1-1 because Floyd was allegedly trying to buy merchandise with a counterfeit $20 bill.

Officers Thomas Lane and J.A. Kueng arrived and store employees directed them to the car where Floyd was in the drivers seat, along with two passengers. Lane approached the driver’s side, pulled out his gun, pointed it at Floyd’s open window, and ordered him to show his hands.

[Comment: Passing a fake $20 is a nonviolent crime.]

Floyd complied and showed his hands. Lane holstered his gun. Lane ordered him out of the car, and ended up pulling him out of the car. Floyd resisted being handcuffed, but once handcuffed, he was compliant, sitting on the sidewalk. Officers tried to get him to stand up and walk to the squad car. “Mr. Floyd stiffened, fell to the ground, and told officers he was claustrophobic.”

That’s when officers Chauvin and Tou Thoa arrived.

Floyd resisted attempts to get him into the backseat of the squad car. “While standing outside the car, Mr. Floyd began saying and repeating that he could not breathe.”

Chauvin pulled Floyd out of the backseat of the squad car (the complaint doesn’t explain why).

“Mr. Floyd went down to the ground face down and still handcuffed. Kueng held Floyd’s back and Lane held his legs.  The defendant [Chauvin] placed his left knee in the area of Mr. Floyd’s head and neck. Mr. Floyd said ‘I can’t breathe’ multiple times and repeatedly said ‘Mama’ and ‘please,’ as well. The defendant and the other two officers stayed in their positions.”

Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly 8 minutes until Floyd died. Chauvin kept his knee of Floyd’s neck for roughly two-and-a-half minutes after Floyd became unresponsive, neither speaking or breathing. Chauvin and the other two officers remained in position even after Kueng said he couldn’t find Floyd’s pulse.

The medical examiner’s preliminary autopsy results found “no physical findings that support diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation.” It found Floyd had underlying heart disease. It concluded that “the combined effects of Mr. Floyd being restrained by the police, his underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to his death.”

This is likely what Hennepin County Attorney Freeman meant when he said at a Thursday press conference: “there’s other evidence that does not support a criminal charge.”

A news report said Floyd’s family will request an independent autopsy.

Floyd’s underlying health conditions might complicate the prosecution, but they shouldn’t let Chauvin’s off the hook for murder.

Law enforcement experts have roundly criticized Chauvin’s actions.

Chauvin’s excessive use of force gets added to a long list of grievances about the Minneapolis Police Department’s culture and tactics, particularly from the black and Indigenous communities. As the Marshall Project reported Thursday, the Minneapolis Police Department has failed to adopt needed reforms to address problem officers.

The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of urgency about the criminal justice system. It analyzed Minnesota police reform efforts to understand why change has been “so slow across the predominantly white state.” It concluded:

Police accountability experts, court documents, stalled state legislation and a 2015 report by the U.S. Justice Department about policing in Minneapolis all point to a clear pattern: Even as officials have made some changes, law enforcement agencies have lacked either the authority or the will to discipline and remove bad officers from patrol. They have also failed to set clear criteria on the use of force and de-escalation.

Following the 2015 federal review, former Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau agreed to update the department’s intervention system to address problem cops, the article said.

She also narrowed the circumstances in which Minneapolis officers were authorized to kill. In 2016, the department rewrote its use of force policy with a focus on the “sanctity of life.” The new rules also required officers to intervene when a fellow cop became abusive.

It’s unclear whether the department followed through on promises to update the system to identify problem cops, the article said.

The police department wouldn’t comment on whether that early-warning system ever flagged Officer Chauvin, or any of the other three officers involved in Floyd’s arrest. But records show Chauvin and one of the other officers had complaints filed against them.

Many reforms require legislative approval. We as a community, particularly those of us in privileged positions, have failed for too long to make such issues a top priority.

One starting point will be the recommendations released last February by a working group led by Attorney General Keith Ellison and Commissioner of Public Safety John Harrington on how to reduce police-involved deadly force encounters.

As a post script, here are some of the community statements issued on Floyd’s death, prior to charges being filed.

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