On Monday, May 25, a black teenager used her smartphone to record the final minutes of George Floyd’s life at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers. She watched three of them stand, kneel, observe and support a fourth who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd was forced to remain on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back. She watched Floyd beg for help, complain repeatedly that he could not breathe and die.
Each of the officers heard Floyd’s desperate cries to breathe. They heard him scream for his mother. They heard onlookers call on them to pick Floyd up, roll him over and seat him in a police cruiser. They heard onlookers proclaim that Floyd was not resisting arrest. The teenager captured the sights and sounds of racism, militarism and materialism that resulted in the death of George Floyd in plain sight and under the force and authority of four Minneapolis police officers.
“Anger about long recognized injustice and corruption surrounding abusive and homicidal law enforcement behavior in Minneapolis was not met by any substantive action protesters could ‘trust.’”
When the video of Floyd’s last desperate and dying minutes taken by the courageous teenage black girl was shared with the public the Minneapolis Police Department fired the four officers. But the MPD did not arrest all four officers despite knowing what they had done to Floyd. None of the officers was promptly arrested for assault or murder, criminal acts that were plainly visible in the video and known by leaders of the MPD and the Hennepin County attorney’s office when the officers were fired on May 27.
On May 28, three days after Floyd’s killing, the United States attorney for the district of Minnesota and the county attorney held a joint press conference. Strangely, the county attorney stated that “there is other evidence that does not support a criminal charge” in Floyd’s death, a comment his office sought later to “clarify.” Both officials called for “patience” and urged the public to “trust the process.”
That same day, however, the mayor of Minneapolis asked the governor of Minnesota to dispatch the state militia – the National Guard – to the city. Local outrage about the refusal to arrest anyone concerning Floyd’s death intensified and hardened. Anger about long recognized injustice and corruption surrounding abusive and homicidal law enforcement behavior in Minneapolis was not met by any substantive action protesters could “trust.”
On Friday afternoon, May 29, the county attorney convened another press conference to announce that Derek Chauvin, only one of the four police officers involved in Floyd’s death, had been taken into custody and charged with murder in the third degree (the lowest murder offense) and manslaughter (the second lowest homicide offense). Chauvin was the officer who pinned Floyd to the street surface face down and pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck while Floyd pleaded for his life and eventually died. The prosecutor did not explain why the other three former officers were not arrested as accessories to the murder of George Floyd.
What went wrong
Since 1979 I’ve practiced law, been a state appellate judge, taught law (including criminal procedure, constitutional law and a seminar on law and cultural competence) and served as a state trial judge. From my vantage point as a lawyer, judge and Baptist minister, I have reviewed carefully the matter of George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers and the stream of events in the wake of his death. The list of what went wrong is long and damning.
Hiring, training and retaining culturally incompetent, abusive and homicidal actors to work as law enforcement was wrong.
Dispatching and deploying four armed police officers to respond to a suspected forgery of a $20 check by an unarmed suspect was wrong.
Forcing George Floyd to the street on his stomach and holding him there after he had been handcuffed behind his back and was not resisting arrest or hindering being placed into a vehicle for transport was wrong.
The conduct of the other three police officers who assisted Chauvin in pinning Floyd to the street on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back and who prevented onlookers from approaching to render first aid to Floyd was wrong.
Denying Floyd first aid or relief from having his breathing threatened by Chauvin was wrong.
Disregarding the appeals by spectators to allow Floyd to sit up and to pay attention to his complaints of being unable to breathe was wrong.
Withholding information about what happened and refusing to arrest the four police officers immediately after they were fired was wrong.
Concealing the identities of the fired officers and refusing to refer to them as criminal suspects in the death of George Floyd was wrong.
Calling on Floyd’s family, the black community of Minneapolis and the wider community and nation to be “patient” and “trust the process” was wrong. The MPD urged black and brown people to “trust” a “process” manipulated to protect abusive and homicidal law enforcement personnel from discipline, criminal prosecution and conviction, and professional banishment.
Militarized responses to nonviolent protests were wrong. Deploying baton-wielding police officers and police in riot gear and firing rubber bullets, flash bang grenades and pepper bullets into groups of protestors and teams of credentials-waving journalists covering the protests was wrong. Calling out the National Guard and sending assault rifle-toting soldiers to confront angry and grief-stricken civilians was wrong.
Allowing investigation and prosecution decisions concerning the killing of George Floyd to be handled by the county attorney and the U.S. district attorney was wrong. Concerns about cronyism between the county prosecutor and the MPD deepened after comments made during the May 28 press conference. And the U.S. attorney surely must have known how little trust there is among people of color for U.S. Attorney General William Barr because of his decision not to file charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the New York Police Department officer whose choke hold led to the death of Eric Garner.
Failure or refusal to have Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison lead the investigation and prosecution of the four former police officers was wrong. Ellison – unlike the Minneapolis mayor, the county prosecutor and U.S. district attorney for Minnesota – has established himself as credible, trustworthy and courageous in confronting and correcting abusive and homicidal law enforcement behavior.
Failure to discern and admit cultural incompetence on the part of the Minneapolis and Minnesota political and law enforcement leadership was wrong. Cultural competence involves having the knowledge and skill to navigate cross cultural situations, dynamics and realities in effective ways. The history of distrust and hostility within communities of color about the long record of abusive and homicidal law enforcement by the MPD offers overwhelming proof about the cultural incompetence of elected officials, police department leaders and rank-and-file law enforcement personnel regarding use of force during interactions by police with persons of color.
“Deploying military force against peaceful grieving and oppressed people is tyranny.”
A “law and order” mindset that immediately triggers militarized responses to public outrage about the abusive and homicidal behavior that killed George Floyd does not foster trust, patience and healing among communities of color, political leaders, law enforcement leaders and rank-and-file law enforcement personnel.
How to make it right
Justice for George Floyd demands at least these actions by the Minneapolis Police Department, the City of Minneapolis and the State of Minnesota:
1. Publicly arrest the three other former police officers who were involved in the death of George Floyd. Had all four former officers immediately after they were fired on May 27 been arrested on suspicion of causing Floyd’s death, most – if not all – of the angry protests on that day and the days following in Minneapolis and St. Paul and in other cities across the nation would have been avoided. Protests and expressions of outrage will continue until the arrest of every law enforcement agent who cooperated with, was complicit in and otherwise supported events related to the detainment, arrest and death of George Floyd.
2. Honor the life and memory of George Floyd. The Floyd family and the black community of Minneapolis should be consoled and supported. George Floyd’s name and memory should be publicly honored, with expenses borne by the city, in a manner approved by the Floyd family.
3. Transfer further investigation and prosecution of all criminal charges arising from Floyd’s death to the Minnesota attorney general in order to dispel valid concerns about cronyism between the Hennepin County attorney’s office and the Minneapolis Police Department.
The charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter filed against Chauvin are in the lower range of chargeable homicide offenses in the state of Minnesota. However, Chauvin (aided by his three accomplices) assaulted George Floyd by holding his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes until Floyd died and chose to ignore pleas from onlookers to stop. The conduct of the four former officers was clearly intentional even if they did not intend Floyd’s death.
The county prosecutor could have charged Chauvin with second-degree unintentional murder, a crime punishable by imprisonment for up to 40 years. Minnesota Statute 609.19, subdivision 2.1, states that a person commits that offense who causes the death of a human being, without intent to effect the death of any person, while committing or attempting to commit a felony offense other than criminal sexual conduct in the first or second degree with force or violence or a drive-by shooting.
Under state statute 609.221, subdivision 1, whoever assaults another and inflicts great bodily harm may be convicted of assault in the first degree and sentenced to imprisonment for up to 20 years, payment of a fine of up to $30,000, or both.
The Minneapolis Police Department apparently concluded that Chauvin’s conduct was unjustifiable because they fired him. Thus, it is strange that Chauvin was not charged with second degree intentional murder given the clear proof that he assaulted Floyd and inflicted “great bodily harm” that caused Floyd’s death.
The Hennepin County prosecutor also could have charged the other officers who assisted Chauvin in Floyd’s killing with second-degree unintentional murder. According to state statute 609.05, subdivision 1, a person is criminally liable for a crime committed by another If the person intentionally aids … the other to commit the crime.
Under this statute, prosecutors in Minnesota routinely use accomplice liability to charge persons who aid others to commit crimes, including murder. The decision to not file charges against Chauvin’s three accomplices who aided him by preventing onlookers from stopping Chauvin from continuing to pin George Floyd to the ground with his knee on Floyd’s neck suggests that the county prosecutor treated three former police officers differently – and far more leniently – from how other persons would be treated.
4. Issue a public apology from the Minneapolis Police Department, the City of Minneapolis and the State of Minnesota to the family of George Floyd for his wrongful death and for the pain and suffering experienced after his death. In addition, negotiate, reach and publicize a fair and substantial monetary settlement with the Floyd family that includes admission by the MPD and the city for Floyd’s death and all damages associated with it, including conscious pain and suffering, mental anguish, funeral expenses and lost earnings along with damages to Floyd’s close relatives for mental anguish.
5. Engage in mediation through the Minneapolis Council of Churches, involving the city’s elected leaders, police department officials and leaders of communities of color. Communities of color have good reasons to view mediation efforts initiated by civic and law enforcement officials as efforts to pacify their longstanding complaints about excessive force by police officers. For that reason, mediation should be led by prophetic moral leaders affiliated with the Minneapolis Council of Churches.
6. Retain expert consultation and assistance in cultural competency and inclusion for Minneapolis civic, law enforcement and community leaders, with special emphasis on cultural competence in law enforcement and use-of-force practices.
Plainly, MPD leaders and rank-and-file personnel lack the knowledge and skill required to handle cross-cultural situations, events and experiences in ways that are fair, decent and honorable. Civic and law enforcement leaders need ongoing assistance and advice in cultural competency from independent consultants to assure that training and guidance are provided in objective ways that include accountability. This independent assistance and advice should be mandated for all MPD personnel for not less than 90 years.
7. Enter into a 10-year agreement (representing a year for the last minutes of George Floyd’s life) between the city and its police department and the U.S. Justice Department for a pattern and practice investigation and monitoring of the MPD by the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
8. Provide lifetime mental health counseling and/or treatment paid for by the city of Minneapolis for the immediate family of George Floyd and for the persons who were on site when he was killed. Floyd’s relatives suffered an indescribably horrific tragedy when his life was brutally ended at the hands of four police officers. The family’s horror has been compounded by the culturally incompetent ways the MPD, the City of Minneapolis, and the State of Minnesota have responded to public protests about Floyd’s death.
“We must join those who protest the systemic racism that permeates American society and American law enforcement.”
The people who physically witnessed Floyd’s killing, including the teenager who bravely filmed what happened, also have memories that will haunt them the rest of their lives, exacting a physical, emotional and moral toll. The City of Minneapolis and MPD should pay for the mental health counseling and treatment these people need.
9. Rebuild and repair buildings destroyed and damaged in Minneapolis during actions to protest the death of George Floyd. Damage and destruction of buildings in communities of color where businesses provided groceries, medication and medical supplies, and other essential items and services could have been prevented had MPD leaders arrested the four police officers promptly after they were fired. A publicly funded restoration program for those business and property owners would demonstrate civic commitment to repentance and healing for generations of systemic discrimination, racism and tolerance of abusive and homicidal law enforcement behavior by the MPD.
10. End the militarized occupation of Minneapolis. Cultural incompetence permeates the actions of the MPD, City of Minneapolis and State of Minnesota related to the death of George Floyd, beginning with the decision to dispatch four police officers to respond to a report about a suspected $20 forgery. The officers’ actions that caused Floyd’s death were culturally incompetent and professionally unjustifiable.
Nonviolent, peaceful protest about the murder of an unarmed and helpless black man by the police is not a crime in Minnesota. Protesters have the right to openly and fiercely condemn the death of George Floyd at the hands of the MPD. They have the right to condemn the refusal of the MPD to arrest and prosecute Floyd’s killers.
To their credit, protesters have refused to be bullied and bossed. From all indications, the protests will continue no matter how many soldiers and military weapons are deployed to stop it.
Deploying military force against peaceful grieving and oppressed people is tyranny. The militarization of Minneapolis should be ended immediately.
All of us who claim to follow Jesus should pray for the family of George Floyd, for those who witnessed his killing, and for the people of Minneapolis who are protesting his senseless, violent and unjust death. We must join the people engaged in nonviolent protest about the systemic racism that permeates American society and American law enforcement. We must protest the refusal to arrest and aggressively prosecute the four former MPD officers who murdered George Floyd. And we must condemn and denounce attempts to bully and beat protesters into silence about the injustices surrounding Floyd’s murder.
George Floyd’s life and memory deserve all of these things, at minimum. Shame on us if we refuse to do them.
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