Knee on George Floyd's neck constituted 'deadly force', police expert says

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Derek Chauvin's trial is being closely followed by Minneapolis residents and activists across the US - Jerry Holt /Star Tribune via AP
Derek Chauvin's trial is being closely followed by Minneapolis residents and activists across the US - Jerry Holt /Star Tribune via AP

Derek Chauvin used "deadly force" despite at least two decades of police training warning about the dangers of kneeling on people's necks, a use-of-force expert told the former officer's murder trial on Wednesday.

Sergeant Jody Stiger, a use-of-force instructor from the Los Angeles Police Department, said Mr Chauvin appeared to use most of his body weight to pin George Floyd to the ground for more than nine minutes during his fatal arrest last May.

In fact, Sgt Stiger said, "no force should have been used" once Mr Floyd was lying on his stomach with his face pushed against the tarmac because of the risk to his breathing.

"[Mr Floyd] was in the prone position, he was not resisting, he was handcuffed, he was not attempting to evade, he was not attempting to resist," he told the court.

He told the court that Mr Chauvin's body weight on Mr Floyd "could cause positional asphyxia which could cause death".

Sgt Stiger told the court that the dangers of positional asphyxia, including the risk of death, have been known for at least 20 years.

Sgt Stiger was called as a paid expert witness by the prosecution in the trial of Mr Chauvin. He is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter and third-degree murder.

The sergeant, who has trained more than 3,000 officers on use-of-force in Los Angeles, said he had reviewed Minneapolis Police Department training and policy in addition to footage of Mr Floyd's fatal arrest.

Bystander footage of the 46-year-old unarmed and handcuffed black man being pinned down as he said "I can't breathe" prompted an international outcry and was the trigger for a national reckoning on US policing.

During witness testimony, prosecutors have sought to focus on the length of time Mr Chauvin appeared to be on Mr Floyd's neck as they build their case that the former officer violated police protocol and used excessive force.

The defence has argued that Mr Floyd's death was caused by drugs found in his system and underlying heart problems.

Eric Nelson, left, and Derek Chauvin, right, listen as Judge Peter Cahill presides in the murder trial  -  Court TV
Eric Nelson, left, and Derek Chauvin, right, listen as Judge Peter Cahill presides in the murder trial - Court TV

The defence has repeatedly drawn attention to photographs showing Mr Chauvin's knee on Mr Floyd's back or shoulder, rather than his neck.

Prosecutors contend that Mr Chauvin had his knee on Mr Floyd's neck until paramedics arrived to check his pulse, at which point he moved his knee onto his back.

In court on Wednesday, Sgt Stiger told prosecutors that at one point, Mr Chauvin squeezed Mr Floyd's fingers and pulled one of his wrists toward his handcuffs - a "pain compliance" technique that uses pain to get someone to comply.

However, Mr Chauvin did not appear to let up while Mr Floyd was restrained.

Prosecutors asked the witness what it meant if there was "no opportunity for compliance". "Then at that point it's just pain," Sgt Stiger replied.

During cross-examination, defence lawyer Eric Nelson told the court that police dispatchers had described Mr Floyd as between 6ft and 6ft5 and possibly under the influence, suggesting this information may have influenced the officers' behaviour.

George Floyd's brother Philonise Floyd - Reuters
George Floyd's brother Philonise Floyd - Reuters

He played a short video of Mr Floyd handcuffed and on the ground and asked Sgt Stiger if the 46-year-old appeared to be saying "I ate too many drugs".

Sgt Stiger said he could not be certain.

Mr Nelson has also argued the officers were distracted by a hostile group of bystanders that prevented them from fully assessing Mr Floyd's condition.

Sgt Stiger agreed that a crowd of onlookers can distract police from their duties in "some circumstances".

But Sgt Stiger also told prosecutors he did not deem the onlookers to Mr Floyd's fatal arrest on May 25 "as being a threat".

“They were merely filming, and most of their concern was for Mr Floyd,” he said.

It was Sgt Stiger's second day on the stand. On Tuesday, he testified that officers were justified in using force while Mr Floyd was resisting their efforts to put him in a squad car. But once Mr Floyd was on the ground and stopped resisting, officers "should have slowed down or stopped their force as well."

Gwen Carr, Eric Garner's mother, stands with Philonise Floyd outside the courthouse - Reuters
Gwen Carr, Eric Garner's mother, stands with Philonise Floyd outside the courthouse - Reuters

After reviewing video of the arrest, Sgt Stiger concluded that "the force was excessive."

Pills found in Floyd's car

On Wednesday afternoon prosecutors called several witnesses from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigators, including senior special agent James Reyerson, a lead investigator in the case.

Part of Mr Reyerson's testimony involved the investigation of the police squad car used in the arrest and Mr Floyd's Mercedes Benz SUV.

Mr Reyerson told the court that two cars involved in the incident had to be investigated twice by crime scene investigators.

In one particularly embarrassing incident, investigators did not spot the presence of drugs in the police squad car until the pills were spotted by Mr Chauvin's lawyer months during an examination after the fatal arrest. An examination revealed Mr Floyd's DNA on the pills.

Mr Reyerson confirmed the police car was sealed when the defence alerted investigators to the drugs and there is no suggestion that Mr Chauvin or his lawyer were able to tamper or interfere with the evidence in any way.

Later in the day, McKenzie Anderson, a forensic scientist with the bureau, took the stand to describe collecting pills from the vehicles, including whole and partial tablets from the police squad car.

She testified that Mr Floyd's blood was found in the back of the squad car and that pills found in the vehicle matched his DNA.

Breahna Giles, a state forensic scientist, told the court that pills found in the SUV Mr Floyd was driving contained methamphetamine and fentanyl.

Another witness, forensic chemist Susan Meith, told the court that remnants of the pill found in the back of the police squad car also contained methamphetamine and fentanyl.

No 'blue wall'

Instead of closing ranks to protect a fellow officer behind what has been dubbed the "blue wall of silence," some of the most experienced members of the Minneapolis force have taken the stand during the last few days to openly condemn Mr Chauvin's actions.

Jurors also heard that Mr Chauvin took a 40-hour course in 2016 on handling "people in crisis", such as those suffering mental health problems or the effects of drug use, and was trained on how to use de-escalation techniques to calm them down.

Records show Mr Chauvin also underwent training in the use of force in 2018.

Lieutenant Johnny Mercil, a Minneapolis police use-of-force instructor, told jurors that the "sanctity of life" was a central pillar of the department's policy and that officers must use the least amount of force required to get a suspect to comply.

The trial continues.

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