Neck restraints authorized, but Chauvin violated use-of-force policy, court hears

While neck restraints are part of the approved use-of-force training for Minneapolis police officers, Derek Chauvin’s knee press into George Floyd’s neck was a violation of policy, a lieutenant who trains officers in such techniques testified on Tuesday.

Lt. Johnny Mercil, a Minneapolis police officer who trained Chauvin in proper use-of-force techniques, was shown a picture of Chauvin with his knee pressed into Floyd’s neck during their fatal confrontation on May 25, 2020.

Prosecutor Steve Schleicher asked Mercil if that restraint was part of the training at the Minneapolis Police Department.

“No sir,” he said.

Mercil said a knee on the neck is an authorized use of force but that officers are told to stay away from the neck if possible. Schleicher asked if an officer is to employ such a technique, how long it should be used. 

Mercil said it would depend on the resistance being offered.

“Say, for example, the subject was under control and handcuffed — would this be authorized?” Schleicher asked.

“I would say no,” Mercil said.

Chauvin, 45, who is white, faces two murder charges — second-degree unintentional murder and third-degree murder — in Floyd’s death. The 46-year-old Black man died after Chauvin pressed his knee against the back of Floyd’s neck for around nine minutes as other officers held him down. Video captured by a bystander showed the handcuffed Floyd repeatedly say he couldn’t breathe. 

Floyd had been detained outside a convenience store after being suspected of paying with a counterfeit bill. All four officers were later fired. The footage of the arrest prompted widespread outrage, setting off protests across the U.S. and around the world.

The prosecution says Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck, as he lay handcuffed on the pavement, was the cause of his death. But the defence argues Chauvin did what his training taught him and that it was a combination of Floyd’s underlying medical conditions, drug use and adrenaline flowing through his system that ultimately killed him.

Records show that Chauvin took in-service training in the use of force in October 2018. Other officers, including Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arrondondo, have testified that Chauvin had clearly violated department policy on a number of counts and used excessive force.

Defence attorney Eric Nelson, left, and Chauvin are seen in Hennepin County District Court on Tuesday. (Court TV/The Associated Press)

On Tuesday, with the trial in its second week, Mercil also told Hennepin County District Court that police should try to put a suspect in the “recover” position, sit them up or stand them up, as soon as possible to decrease the risk of difficulty breathing while on their stomachs.

Under cross-examination by Chauvin’s lawyer Eric Nelson, Mercil acknowledged that, in his experience, there have been times when suspects, who he was in the process of detaining, were lying about having a medical emergency.

Mercil also testified that circumstances can change minute to minute; that a suspect can go from being compliant and peaceful to violent, and he agreed all those considerations play a part in the use of force.

He also said there have been times when a suspect who was unconscious, became conscious.

Mercil also acknowledged that just because a person is handcuffed, doesn’t mean the suspect is in control, and that he has trained officers to restrain suspects as “long as they needed to hold them.”

But Schleicher asked Mercil once a subject is under control and no longer resistant, whether it’s inappropriate to hold them in a position where the knee is across their back or neck.

“I would say it’s time to de-escalate the force.”

“And get off of them,” Schleicher said.

“Yes sir,” Mercil said.

Mercil agreed that if an officer is placing body weight with the knee on a person’s neck and back that it would decrease their ability to breathe. 

Mercil also agreed that it would be inappropriate to restrain someone in that way after they had lost their pulse. 

Mercil was asked if there was ever a time when an individual lost their pulse, suddenly came “back to life” and became more resistant. 

“Not that I’m aware of,” he said.

Chauvin’s lawyer Nelson has argued that police at the scene were distracted by what they perceived as a growing and increasingly hostile crowd of onlookers. He asked if Mercil agreed that a crowd jeering police officers will raise alarms within the officers. Mercil agreed.

But Schleicher then asked: “If they’re saying ‘Get off him, you’re killing him,’ should the officer also take that into account and consider whether their actions need to be reassessed?”

“Potentially, yes,” Mercil said.

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