Derek Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric Nelson, says the former Minneapolis police officer “did exactly what he had been trained to do” when he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, pinning him facedown on the pavement. Lt. Robert Zimmerman, a 35-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department, unambiguously contradicted that claim when he testified on Friday in Chauvin’s murder trial.
Zimmerman noted that Floyd, who had been arrested for buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill, was handcuffed behind his back, which “stretches the muscles back through your chest” and “makes it more difficult to breathe.” Forcing Floyd to lie facedown on the ground would have compounded that problem, he said, because “if you’re [lying] on your chest, that’s constricting your breathing even more.”
In light of that danger, Zimmerman said, “once a person is cuffed, you need to turn them on their side or have them sit up; you need to get them off their chest.” One of Chauvin’s colleagues, Officer Thomas Lane, twice suggested that Floyd, who complained 27 times that he was having trouble breathing, should be rolled onto his side. Chauvin rejected those suggestions.
Floyd, who was initially terrified when an officer drew a gun on him, calmed down until Lane and Officer J. Alexander Kueng tried to place him in their squad car. At that point, he seemed to have a panic attack, saying he was claustrophobic, complaining that he could not breathe, and asking if he could ride in the front seat. After he struggled with Lane and Kueng inside the car, he either tumbled or was pulled out onto the street.
In a pretrial motion, Nelson faulted Lane and Kueng for needlessly escalating the situation. “If Kueng and Lane had chosen to de-escalate instead of struggle, Mr. Floyd may have survived,” he said. But once Floyd was handcuffed and out of the car, he was not given a chance to sit up and calm down—an option Zimmerman suggested was consistent with police training.
“Once a person is cuffed, the threat level goes down all the way,” Zimmerman said. “They’re cuffed. How can they really hurt you?” When the prosecutor questioning Zimmerman suggested that “a cuffed person could still be combative,” the lieutenant agreed but added that the risk of “you getting injured” is “way down.” For example, “you could have some guy try to kick you or something, but you can move out of the way.”
Once “that person is handcuffed,” Zimmerman said, “the threat level is just not there.” And “if they become less combative,” he said, “you may just have them sit down on the curb….The idea is to calm the person down.”
Zimmerman also criticized the restraint technique that Chauvin used. Based on the video record, he said, it was clear that Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd’s neck and kept it there until after an ambulance arrived. According to the prosecution, he maintained that position for nearly five minutes after Floyd was no longer responsive, even after Chauvin was repeatedly told that Floyd had no detectable pulse.
In Zimmerman’s view, Chauvin’s neck restraint was “totally unnecessary” and constituted “deadly force” because “if your knee is on a person’s neck, that can kill them.” He said he had never been trained to use that technique on someone who is handcuffed in a facedown prone position.
“Pulling him down to the ground facedown, and putting your knee on a neck for that amount of time is just uncalled for,” Zimmerman said. “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 feel to be able to use that kind of force.”
Sgt. David Pleoger, Chauvin’s supervisor, made a similar point when he testified on Thursday. Pleoger, who testified that Chauvin initially did not mention the neck restraint, said the officers should not have kept Floyd pinned to the ground when he stopped moving and was no longer responsive.
At that point, Zimmerman said, the officers, who were trained in CPR, had a duty to render aid rather than simply wait for an ambulance to arrive. “You need to provide medical care for a person that is in distress,” he said. “That person is yours. He’s your responsibility. His safety is your responsibility. His well-being is your responsibility.”
Two paramedics who testified on Thursday said Floyd showed no signs of life when they first examined him. He was not moving or breathing, and he had no pulse. “In layman’s terms,” paramedic Derek Smith said, “I thought he was dead.”
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