NAACP has urged Minneapolis police to ban fatal neck restraint technique for years

Karen Robinson-Jacobs

Several years before George Floyd, a black man, died after being placed in a controversial knee-on-neck hold by a former Minneapolis police officer, the NAACP began prodding the police department to permanently ban the use of the practice, according to an official with the civil rights group.

On May 25, Derek Chauvin, who was fired the next day, was captured on video kneeling on the neck of a prone and handcuffed Floyd for eight minutes and 45 seconds — including nearly three minutes after Floyd had stopped moving and appeared to lose consciousness.

Chauvin and three fellow police officers were quickly fired. Chauvin has been arrested and charged with murder while Floyd’s death has set off waves of protest, first across the nation and then across the globe.

Trovon Williams, the vice president of marketing and communications for the NAACP national office in Baltimore, told NBC News the group took issue with a number of “use of force” procedures at police departments across the country, including in Minneapolis.

“We demanded that the police department ban those uses, knee holds, as an acceptable use of force … well before this ever came into play,” he said, adding that the talks were part of a nationwide push and have been ongoing for years. “We have focused on de-escalation of tense situations with police.

“Our Minneapolis chapter has been working very very closely with [police Chief Medaria] Arradondo but with respect to it being banned, that has not transpired yet,” Williams added.

Arradondo has called Floyd's killing a "violation of humanity," and said he sees all four officers as being "complicit."

"Silence and inaction, you're complicit," the chief told CNN. "If there was one solitary voice that would have intervened ... that's what I would have hoped for."

The department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

An NBC News analysis of Minneapolis police records found that since the beginning of 2015, department officers have rendered 44 people unconscious with neck restraints. Several police experts said that number appears to be unusually high.

In addition, Floyd’s death prompted the state of Minnesota to launch a sweeping civil rights investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Gov. Tim Walz told reporters the probe is designed to root out "systemic racism that is generations deep.”

The NAACP has raised the knee restraint issue “more than once. It wasn’t just one and done,” Williams said.

Within most major police departments, variations of neck restraints, sometimes referred to as chokeholds, are highly restricted — if not banned outright.

The San Diego Police Department said Monday it “decided to stop ... use of the carotid restraint, effective now.”

There has been an ongoing conversation to push Minneapolis to follow suit, Williams said.

A Minneapolis city official said Chauvin's tactic is not permitted by the Minneapolis police department.

Would the outcome for Floyd have been different had the knee restraint been clearly banned?

“What is clear is that safety measures were not enacted in order to ensure that the preservation of George Floyd’s life was the priority,” Williams said. “The actions of those officers and subsequent inaction by the district attorney [to bring more charges] do nothing to dispel our communities’ opinion that our lives have been devalued and marginalized, especially in dealings with law enforcement.”

Improving outcomes for African Americans who come in contact with the legal system is one pillar of a broad social justice campaign the NAACP launched several weeks ago.

The campaign, dubbed #WeAreDoneDying, aims to bring attention to unequal treatment of blacks in the United States across a range of fronts, from health care to financial assistance to criminal justice.

“The recent events in Minneapolis … bring more attention to some of the policy demands NAACP is calling for in regards to our criminal justice system holistically and how African Americans are treated with regards to police brutality,” Williams said.

“There has to be a moral compass that this country is adhering to,” he added. “If you can’t look at the circumstances in Minneapolis and say to yourself ‘this is wrong,’ then that says a lot about the moral status of our country right now.”

Some experts on police training and use of force said it is not unusual that the department did not immediately change its procedures based on community input.

Suzanne Goodney Lea is the former chair of Trinity College’s Criminal Justice Program in Washington, D.C.

She said she “rarely” sees substantive police policy change following community demands.

“There’s often a disconnect between those kinds of efforts with the community and access to real change,” she said, her voice hoarse from protesting Floyd’s death outside the White House on Sunday.

“The police aren’t necessarily open to hearing it,” partly due to an “us-them mentality,” she said.

“I think the police just don’t see the public as a partner and that’s what needs to change.”

Significant change can follow case law, particularly decisions handed down by the Supreme Court, said Thomas J. Aveni, executive director of the Police Policy Studies Council which focuses on research and police training.

“For people to just say ‘We want change,’ without there being some type of real compelling motivation for change, it generally doesn't happen that readily,” he said.

That’s partly because changing policies is “just a lot more complex than people think,” he added.

“When we talk about changing some of these policies, there … are generally a myriad of unintended consequences,” such as a potential increase in crime following bail changes.

Aveni expressed concern about changes that might be made now to “placate” those concerned about the police use of excessive force.

Like Goodney Lea, he agreed that the process should begin with dialogue.

“How do you get the people that are most influential to sit at the same table and talk about what change is needed and how to go about doing it in a way that isn't going to undermine the safety of police officers,” he asked.

“This country needs dialogue and it needs rational dialogue between responsible people who can affect change. And maybe that'll still come out of this. I'm hoping it does.”

Dialogue is a central tool in the NAACP’s social justice campaign.

Development of the campaign began months ago, but the launch comes amid an outcry over the devastating impact COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is having on the African American community. And even before Floyd’s death put the national spotlight on black people dying in encounters with whites, the campaign called for action in the case of the slain jogger Ahmaud Arbery, 25.

The organization continues to push for Brunswick, Georgia, District Attorney Jackie Johnson to resign following her handling of the Arbery case.

Arbery, who was African American, was shot to death after a white father and his son chased him down as he jogged through a coastal Georgia neighborhood. The father and son were arrested, but not until months after the fatal February shooting.

Arbery’s family has expressed concern that Johnson, who knew the older man, Gregory McMichael, a former police officer, blocked their arrests initially. A spokesman for the district attorney denied that the office gave police any direction on arrests in the case.

Williams said Arbery’s killing shows the continuance of “systematic racism, and privilege granted to white people in America.”

“The unfortunate irony is that what transpired with Ahmaud Arbery down in Georgia just served as another opportunity to highlight [that] even in the midst of a pandemic,” he said, “we are still dealing with this.”

Karen Robinson-Jacobs is a former editor and reporter with The Los Angeles Times. She is currently based in Texas.