Minneapolis was among several cities that had policies on the books requiring police officers to intervene to stop colleagues from using unreasonable force, but that could not save George Floyd, and law enforcement experts say such rules will always run up against entrenched police culture and the fear of being ostracised and branded a “rat”.
Power dynamics may have been magnified in the Floyd case because two of the four officers involved were rookies and the most senior officer on the scene was a training officer, Derek Chauvin, a 19-year police veteran who was seen putting his knee on the back of the Black man’s neck despite his cries that he could not breathe.
Even though lawyers for the rookie officers say both men voiced their concerns about Chauvin’s actions at the moment, they ultimately failed to stop him. Chauvin is now charged with second-degree murder, and his three fellow officers are charged with aiding and abetting.
‘A tight fraternity’
“This is a lesson for every cop in America: if you see something that is wrong, you need to step in,” said Joseph Giacalone, a former New York police sergeant who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “There are a lot of grey areas in policing, but this was crystal clear. You’re better off being ostracised by the group than going to prison for murder.”
Added Andrew Scott, a former Boca Raton, Florida, police chief who testifies in use-of-force cases: “They’re suffering the effects of an organisational culture that doesn’t allow that or reward that behaviour. The fraternity of law enforcement is a tight fraternity and fraternities have a group think.”
Lawyers for the two rookies, Thomas Lane and J Alexander Kueng, emphasised their place in police hierarchy in the now-fired officers’ initial court appearance this past week. They noted both were on just their fourth day as full-fledged policemen at the time of Floyd’s May 25 arrest, while Chauvin was an authority figure as a designated training officer for new policemen.
“They’re required to call him ‘Sir’,” Lane’s lawyer, Earl Gray, told the judge. “He has 20 years’ experience. What is my client supposed to do but to follow what the training officer said? Is that aiding and abetting a crime?”
Gray noted that Lane questioned Chauvin’s actions during the arrest, and Kueng’s lawyer Thomas Plunkett said his client told fellow officers, “You shouldn’t be doing this.”
But according to the criminal complaints that detailed Floyd’s arrest on suspicion of passing a counterfeit bill, the officers did not back up their words with actions.
Despite concerns, no action
Lane held Floyd’s legs and Kueng held his back while Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd’s head and neck. That is when Floyd repeatedly said “I can’t breathe”, “Mama” and “please”. At one point, Floyd said, “I’m about to die.” Nevertheless, Chauvin, Lane and Kueng did not move. And a fourth officer, Tou Thao, continued standing nearby keeping onlookers back.
Moments later, Lane asked, “Should we roll him on his side?” Chauvin replied: “No, staying put where we got him.”
Lane said he was worried Floyd would experience excited delirium, a condition in which a person can become agitated and aggressive or suddenly die, according to the documents.
“That’s why we have him on his stomach,” Chauvin replied.
Despite his concerns, Lane did not do anything to help Floyd or to reduce the force being used on him, the complaint said. Neither he nor Keung and Chauvin moved from their positions until an ambulance came and took Floyd to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Policy and practice
Minneapolis police added a “duty to intervene” policy in 2016, saying officers are required to “either stop or attempt to stop another sworn employee when force is being inappropriately applied or is no longer required”.
City officials moved on Friday to strengthen that duty by seeking to make it enforceable in court, and to require officers to immediately report to their superiors when they see the use of any neck restraint or chokehold.
Similar “duty to intervene” policies and initiatives had been in place for years in New York City, Miami and New Orleans. And since the Floyd case, Dallas and Charlotte, North Carolina, are among the places that have enacted such policies.
But, Scott said, “There’s policy and then there’s practice. More likely than not, practice and custom will prevail over policy.”
Departments often do not reward officers for interfering with their colleagues or reporting that they broke policy, Scott said. And officers who do intervene risk being ostracised by their fellow officers and branded as an informer in the ranks.
“In law enforcement, if you’re considered an individual who can’t be trusted, you’re not going to have the timely back-up from other officers,” Scott said. “That’s a legitimate fear factor.”