Area police leaders on Monday condemned the tactics former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin used in the deadly arrest of George Floyd that has sparked nationwide outrage and protests.
The May 25 death came following a call about a counterfeit $20 bill being passed. The arrest was filmed on phones of bystanders who begged Chauvin to take his knee off of Floyd’s neck and implored three officers who were there to intervene. All were fired shortly afterward.
“The video makes me sick to my stomach,” said Clarke County Sheriff Anthony W. “Tony” Roper, an officer since 1978. “There is no way the proper police procedure was used in this particular case.”
Winchester Police Chief John E. Piper, an officer since 1994, said he was “shocked and disgusted” by the video.
“There’s no excuse for what happened to Mr. Floyd,” Piper said. “I think I speak for all professional law enforcement officers when we say that’s completely unacceptable and something we need to weed out in our profession.”
Frederick County Sheriff Lenny Millholland said in an email that he was in “disbelief” after watching the video.
“There are no words that can justify this kind of treatment to anyone,” said Millholland, an officer since 1979. “There are so many reasons why many police agencies, including ours, do not use these techniques. It doesn’t take much for you to understand if you kneel on someone’s neck, they won’t be breathing very long.”
Winchester Police Department officers, for instance, can only place their knees on a suspect's back while handcuffing the person and briefly after they've been handcuffed while placing them into a seated or standing position, according to Piper.
Citing a private autopsy paid for by Floyd’s family, the New York Times reported on Monday that Floyd died from asphyxiation from Chauvin’s knee on his neck and from being held down by the other officers. Also Monday, the Hennepin County, Minnesota, Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a homicide. It said Floyd died of a heart attack caused by police restraint and neck compression. The county criminal complaint said Chauvin kept his knee on the handcuffed Floyd’s back for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
“Two minutes and 53 seconds of this was after Mr. Floyd was non-responsive,” the complaint said. “Police are trained that this type of restraint with a subject in a prone position is inherently dangerous.”
When using knee strikes, police cadets at the Skyline Regional Criminal Justice Academy in Middletown are trained to avoid the back and neck, according to Tommie A. Bower, academy executive director. The academy, which follows Virginia Department of Criminal Justice standards, trains 25 to 35 recruits annually for 15 law enforcement departments including those in Winchester as well as Clarke and Frederick counties.
The Clarke County Sheriff’s Office use-of-force policy forbids placing a knee on a handcuffed suspect’s back or neck.
In the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, a knee can only be used between the shoulder blades while handcuffing a suspect, Millholland said.
The Minneapolis Police Department policy manual allows “compressing one or both sides of a person’s neck with an arm or a leg without applying direct pressure to the trachea or airway.” However, Piper said that would be “inexcusable” for Winchester police. He said officers are trained to avoid touching the neck because it can be deadly. The only time it would be allowed would be in a struggle where officers feared for their lives.
Winchester police deadly force procedures require officers to intervene and report officers who violate procedures.
“Any officer present and observing another officer using force that is clearly beyond that which is reasonably necessary shall, when in a position to do so, safely intercede to end and prevent the further use of such excessive force,” the use-of-force policy states. “In addition, officers shall immediately notify an on-duty supervisor.”
The images of Floyd’s death are part of over 60 years of video documenting police brutality including the setting of dogs and fire hoses on civil rights protesters in the 1950s and 60s, the Chicago police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the infamous beating of driver Rodney King by Los Angeles Police officers after a high-speed chase in 1991. But these types of images have become more common in the last decade due to proliferation of cellphone video.
Local law enforcement leaders emphasized the images don’t reflect the actions of the majority of the approximately 700,000 full-time police officers in the U.S. Nonetheless, they acknowledged that high-profile incidents are a setback to efforts to gain and maintain public trust.
“I hope that the people in our community can differentiate what happened out there with the way we behave ourselves here,” Roper said. “But generally speaking, we are painted with a very broad brush.”
“Sadly, there are bad people in this profession just like any profession,” Piper said. “But when somebody in this career does something like that, it can definitely be a challenge that we have to overcome because it’s not helping move us forward in our partnership with the community.”
Millholland said his department is committed to only using proportional force and won’t tolerate misbehavior.
“We can’t continue to have the public trust tarnished by these acts,” he said. “There are so many caring and wonderful law enforcement officers in our country, but like any other profession, there are some that should have been removed before they do something wrong again.”
Berryville Police Chief Neal White, an officer since 1999, called Floyd’s death “appalling” and said officers like Chauvin, who had 17 misconduct violations in nearly 20 years as a cop, need to be weeded out early.
“When we see these early warning signs that somebody might be going down a wrong path where they can’t self-regulate or don’t have empathetic communication skills, we either retrain them or decide they’re not an appropriate fit for this field,” White said. “Departments have to have good oversight internally.”