A former Minneapolis police sergeant who was initially called to the scene to review the use of force during George Floyd’s arrest told jurors on Thursday that former police officer Derek Chauvin could have let him up much sooner, once he stopped resisting arrest.
Assessing whether Mr Chauvin’s use of force was reasonable, and whether he carried out his duty to provide timely medical care for a person in his custody, are among the central questions in his murder trial.
He is on trial for second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter for his role in the fatal arrest of the unarmed Black man on 25 May, 2020. Three other former officers will go on trial later this year.
“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.
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According to audio played for the court on Thursday, Mr Chauvin called Mr Pleoger, his supervisor, to report the use of force.
“We just had to hold a guy down,” Mr Chauvin tells him on the call. “He was going crazy.”
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 he was loaded onto a stretcher.
Derek Smith, one of the medics, testified on Thursday that he found Mr Floyd without a pulse and believed him to be already dead by the time he got there, and didn’t believe officers had given him any medical aid.
“In lay terms, I thought he was dead,” Mr Smith, a Hennepin County paramedic, told the jury. “When I arrived to the scene there were no medical services being provided to the patient,” he added.
Mr Pleoger, the retired sergeant, described the many factors which go into the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD)’s use of force policy, where officers are trained to use a “critical thinking model” and adjust their tactics with new information as an arrest unfolds. This can include whether the scene of the arrest is secure from bystander interference and the state of a suspect’s health.
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.”
He also walked the court through other aspects of the use of force policy, such as how it is balanced with officers’ obligations to render medical care. MPD policy, for instance, requires officers to give medical aid when possible after calling for an ambulance.
Officers are also trained with information about the so-called “recovery position”, Mr Pleoger continued, a sideways prone position that allows people in custody to breathe more easily, and positional asphyxia, when someone’s body position prevents them from getting enough air.
According to police body camera footage, Mr Floyd told officers 27 times that he couldn’t breathe and asked to be let up, but was kept on the ground.
Officers are also required under department policy to call a supervisor on the scene for an initial review when force is used, such as handcuffs, injury to a person in custody, or an officer’s gun is drawn — all of which took place during Mr Floyd’s arrest.
A 911 dispatcher named Jena Scurry was the first to call Mr Pleoger onto the scene for a force review after watching the arrest play out on a city security camera feed.
“My instincts were telling me something is wrong, something is not right. I don’t know what, but something was not right,” she said on Monday. “It was an extended period of time.”
Thursday’s proceedings also delved into the other main question of the trial: what actually caused George Floyd’s death. The defence has argued that pre-existing medical conditions and drugs in Mr Floyd’s system during his arrest, rather than the knee on his neck, caused his death.
Courteney Ross, Mr Floyd’s girlfriend, explained how he struggled with drugs and was once hospitalised for an overdose. “Floyd and I both suffered with an opioid addiction,” she told the court. “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.”
A county autopsy of Mr Floyd after his death listed heart disease, fentanyl intoxication, and recent methamphetamine use as “significant conditions”, but deemed his passing a homicide.
Previous parts of the trial have also delved into the medical questions surrounding Mr Floyd’s death and whether they were preventable.
Earlier in the week, witnesses testified about how a crowd of bystanders pleaded with officers to check Mr Floyd’s pulse and offer him first aid. Genevieve Hansen, an off-duty Minneapolis firefighter, called 911 as she watched the arrest. She told the court on Tuesday she was “desperate” to help but “the officers did not let me into the scene.”
“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.
At the beginning of the trial, prosecutors said Mr Chauvin reached for his can of Mace spray when Ms Hansen came over to try and offer first aid to Mr Floyd.
“She wanted to check on his pulse, check on Mr. Floyd’s well-being,” prosecutor Jerry Blackwell said on Monday in his opening arguments. “She did her best to intervene. When she approached Mr Chauvin … Mr Chauvin reached for his Mace and pointed it in her direction. She couldn’t help.”
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