Veteran Minneapolis officer Richard Zimmerman says kneeling on George Floyd’s neck was ‘totally unnecessary’

Police veteran Richard Zimmerman said deadly force wasn’t necessary once a suspect was in handcuffs

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Friday 02 April 2021 16:59 BST
Police vet says Derek Chauvin used 'totally unnecessary' force on George Floyd
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The longest-serving policeman with the Minneapolis police department said on Friday in court that former officer Derek Chauvin used a “totally unnecessary” amount of force when he kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.

“Totally unnecessary,” lieutenant Richard Zimmerman said when asked whether that sort of move was justified in the situation. “First of all, pulling him down to the ground face-down and putting your knee on a neck for that amount of time is just uncalled for. I saw no reason why the officers felt they were in danger, if that’s what they felt, and that’s what they would have to have felt to use that kind of force.”

Mr Chauvin, a white former Minneapolis police officer, is facing murder charges after he was recorded on video kneeling on the neck of Mr Floyd, an unarmed Black man in handcuffs, for more than nine minutes during an arrest for a counterfeit $20 bill last May.

While he hasn’t yet taken the stand himself, and may not testify at all, Mr Chauvin was captured on body camera footage talking about his thinking during the arrest.

“We’ve got to control this guy because he’s a sizable guy,” Mr Chauvin tells a bystander, Charles MacMillian. “It looks like he was probably on something.”

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Deciding whether Mr Chauvin used an appropriate, sanctioned amount of force on Mr Floyd is one of the central questions of this case.

Lieutenant Zimmerman has been with the Minneapolis police since 1985, and he told the court that he’s never been trained to kneel on someone’s neck. Later in his testimony, he said that it’s possible an officer’s knee could be placed on someone’s upper back while they were subduing someone.

“That would be the top tier: the deadly force ... because of the fact that if your knee is on somebody’s neck, that could kill him,” he said.

Mr Zimmerman also described how officers are taught to use force on a “continuum”, with more or less being applied as the situation on the ground changes. Once a suspect is in handcuffs, Mr Zimmerman continued, the threat level nearly disappears.

“Once a person is cuffed, the threat level goes down all the way. They’re cuffed, how can they really hurt you?” he said. “The threat level is just not there.”

Instead, Mr Zimmerman said, the obligation then becomes to care for the person in custody, including offering timely medical aid like CPR or sitting them up to allow for easier breathing if they’re in distress.

“That person is yours,” he said. “He’s your responsibility. His safety is your responsibility. His well being is your responsibility.”

Mr Zimmerman, the lieutenant, was not formally involved in the department’s use of force review after Mr Floyd’s fatal arrest. He arrived to the scene shortly afterward to help secure it and direct officers before the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension took over a formal “critical incident” review. He did, however, watch body camera footage of what happened.

As the prosecution noted in its opening arguments on Monday, George Floyd told officers he was not able to breathe 27 times before he died. Mr Chauvin’s attorneys have argued pre-existing health conditions and drugs in Mr Floyd’s system at the time of the arrest caused his death.

As the first week of the Chauvin trial comes to a close, questions about the use of force and whether Mr Floyd was given timely medical care before he died have dominated the proceedings. David Pleoger, a former Minneapolis police sergeant who was initially called to the scene to review the use of force during Mr Floyd’s arrest, told jurors on Thursday that Mr Chauvin could have let the suspect up much sooner, once he stopped resisting arrest.

“When Mr Floyd was no longer offering up any resistance to the officers, they could’ve ended their restraint,” retired officer David Pleoger, who reviewed the arrest, testified on Thursday. Still, the former sergeant agreed with a question from defence attorney Eric Nelson that there are times when officers need to do “very violent things” as part of a “dangerous job”.

Sometimes, Mr Pleoger said, a knee on the neck can be considered a “reasonable” use of police force to subdue someone “until you get control of the party”.

Mr Chauvin and other officers remained on top of the handcuffed Mr Floyd for minutes as they arrested him, including a significant period during which he was unconscious and potentially dead.

They restrained Mr Floyd for more than seven minutes after they called an ambulance to the scene on high-alert and continued to press him face-first to the pavement as paramedics arrived and checked his vitals, only moving once his “limp” body was loaded onto a stretcher.

Medics who arrived on the scene testified this week that Mr Floyd appeared dead by the time they got there.

“In lay terms, I thought he was dead,” Hennepin County paramedic Derek Smith told the jury on Thursday.

Mr Smith also testified that it didn’t seem like officers were providing any medical care to Mr Floyd, even though they could have.

“Any layperson could do chest compressions,” he testified. “There’s no reason Minneapolis [police] couldn’t start chest compressions.”

Earlier in the week, Genevieve Hansen, an off-duty firefighter with medical training who witnessed the arrest, also argued Mr Floyd could’ve gotten medical care sooner. She told the court on Tuesday she was “desperate” to help but “the officers did not let me into the scene”. 

Prosecutors said Mr Chauvin reached for a can of Mace as she approached.

“There was a man being killed, and had I had access to a call similar to that I would have been able to provide medical attention to the best of my abilities and this human was denied that right,” Ms Hansen told the jury.

Elsewhere, the trial delved into Mr Floyd’s personal history and his struggles with depression and opioid abuse.

“Floyd and I both suffered with an opioid addiction,” his girlfriend Courteney Ross said. “We both suffered from chronic pain. Mine was in my neck and his was in his back. We both had prescriptions. After prescriptions that were filled, we got addicted and tried really hard to break that addiction many times.”

The day’s proceedings ended early on Friday morning, and as the trial progresses, witnesses will likely move from analyzing the scene of the arrest to medical evidence about what, or who, was ultimately responsible for killing George Floyd.

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