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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

‘Don’t Kill Me’: Others Tell of Abuse by Officer Who Knelt on George Floyd - The New York Times

‘Don’t Kill Me’: Others Tell of Abuse by Officer Who Knelt on George Floyd

"Firsthand accounts accuse Derek Chauvin, the police officer who pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck in Minneapolis, of using similar tactics on detainees over the years.

Zoya Code says the Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd until he complained he could not breathe treated her roughly as well.
Nina Robinson for The New York Times

By Jamiles Lartey and Abbie VanSickle

[Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. Follow the latest updates here.]

Nearly three years before the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd as he cried out that he couldn’t breathe last May, Zoya Code found herself in a similar position: handcuffed facedown on the ground, with Mr. Chauvin’s knee on her.

The officer had answered a call of a domestic dispute at her home, and Ms. Code said he forced her down when she tried to pull away.

“He just stayed on my neck,” ignoring her desperate pleas to get off, Ms. Code said. Frustrated and upset, she challenged him to press harder. “Then he did. Just to shut me up,” she said.

In January, a judge in Minnesota ruled that prosecutors could present the details of her 2017 arrest in their case against the former officer, who was charged with second-degree unintentional murder in Mr. Floyd’s death.

Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was charged with second-degree unintentional murder in the death of George Floyd.
Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, via Associated Press

Ms. Code’s case was one of six arrests as far back as 2015 that the Minnesota Attorney General’s office sought to introduce, arguing that they showed how Mr. Chauvin was using excessive force when he restrained people — by their necks or by kneeling on top of them — just as he did in arresting Mr. Floyd. Police records show that Mr. Chauvin was never formally reprimanded for any of these incidents, even though at least two of those arrested said they had filed formal complaints.

Of the six people arrested, two were Black, one was Latino and one was Native American. The race of two others was not included in the arrest reports that reporters examined.

Discussing the encounters publicly for the first time in interviews with The Marshall Project, three people who were arrested by Mr. Chauvin and a witness in a fourth incident described him as an unusually rough officer who was quick to use force and callous about their pain.

The interviews provide new insight into the history of a police officer whose handling of Mr. Floyd’s arrest, captured on video, was seen around the world and sparked months of protests in dozens of cities.


From Rodney King to George Floyd: Reliving the Scars of Police Violence

The murder trial of Derek Chauvin is at the center of a national reckoning on race and policing. But cycles of protests over systemic racism and policing are not new. We watched the trial with the families of Rodney King, Oscar Grant and Stephon Clark to see this moment in history through their eyes.

“May it please the court. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, good morning. The video evidence, I think, will be very helpful and meaningful to you because you can see it for yourself without lawyer talk, lawyer spin, lawyer anything. You can see it for yourself.” “Please. Please. I can’t breathe. Please, man. Please somebody help me. Please. I’m about to die in this thing.” “Oh my God.” “What did he say?” “He said, I’m about to die. Oh my God.” “While watching the George Floyd trial, I noticed the differences and the importance of footage.” “This corner —” “When Stephon was murdered, we only had the officers’ footage. We only had their point of view.” “Hey, show your hands.” “You know, when my son was killed being on the platform, there was several bystanders that filmed. And had it not been for the cameras, we wouldn’t even be here today because they would have probably said it was justified.” “Bro, with your feet on his head, man. You knee on his neck.” “He’s pushing harder.” “Yeah.” “I cannot breathe.” “A little bit more. Right here.” “I don’t watch the footage of my dad’s incident because it’s torture.” “You see the officers giving a trove of blows to his body?” “Yes.” “To his arms, to his torso, to his legs.” “Here it is 30 years later, nothing has changed.” “Now who are you going to believe? The defendants or your own eyes?” “I am watching the George Floyd case with my best friend, Tiffany, at her home.” “Oh my gosh.” “Wow.” “And he’s still on his neck.” “Today was the first time I watched the entire video of George Floyd, and it definitely made me think about my dad begging for his life screaming.” “Check his pulse. Check his pulse.” “His daughter was the same age I was when my dad was beaten.” “My name is Lora Dene King. I’m the middle child of Rodney Glen King.” “The world saw the videotape.” “We thought the video showed excessive force and unnecessary force.” “With that videotape, if they had two eyes and they weren’t blind, you could see that it was excessive force.” “The defense tried to dilute the impact of the tape by dissecting it, frame by frame, in an effort to show that King was a threat to the officers.” “He kind of gave out like a bear-like yell, like a wounded animal. If he had grabbed my officer, it would have been a death grip. If he had grabbed the weapon, he would have had numerous targets.” “He didn’t grab anybody during these events, did he?” “No sir, he did not.” “He couldn’t walk. He had 50 broken bones. His skull was permanently fractured. He had permanent brain damage. My dad was never the same after that. You know, and everybody just considered him to be normal. I think if that happened to anybody, they wouldn’t be normal ever again.” “This doesn’t just affect the person it happened to. It also affects all those people who are out there watching it. They’re all affected forever.” “I was desperate to help.” “I was just kind of emotional, and I went to the African-American that was standing there on the curb. And I was just like, they’re not going to help them.” “Oh my God.” “This man, he witnessed another African-American man getting his life taken. The nine-year-old speaker on the trial.” “Good morning, [inaudible].” “Good morning.” “Which one is you?” “Just so happened to be walking down the street. She will never forget that for the rest of her life.” “You ultimately ended up posting your video to social media, right?” “Correct.” “And it went viral?” “Correct.” “It changed your life, right?” “The girl who filmed George Floyd, the fact that there was nothing she can do to save his life.” “It’s been nights, I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more.” “That’s something that will haunt her like George Holliday, who captured my dad’s video.” “Without George Holliday, these four officers might not be on trial.” “He just wanted to test this new camera he had. Like, oh let me take — he stood there shaking, terrified. And he still suffers to this day because that was the right thing to do.” “What could he have done to deserve that?” “If I was to see George Floyd’s daughter today, I wish there was something I can say. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy at all. Because I’m sure she’s watched that videotape. And that’s something that carries in your mental every everyday, just like my dad’s video tape.” “For the jury, a difficult decision ahead, knowing that to acquit the four officers could ignite this city.” “Not guilty of —” Chanting: “No justice, no peace. No justice, no peace.” “And damage to the city of Los Angeles running into billions of dollars.” “That’s what I’m saying. The police, they don’t pay a cent for this trial. So my mother and I, we was watching the George Floyd’s trial. And it brought back so many memories of my son Oscar’s case. Oscar’s last picture in his cellphone was of the officer who shot him.” “My name is Wanda Johnson. I’m the mother of Oscar Grant.” “Grant was shot once in the back as he lay face down on the train station’s platform.” “He was unarmed.” “The 27-year-old officer has said he thought he had drawn his Taser gun —” “— but accidentally pulled out his handgun instead.” “And the incident was captured on cellphone video.” “Video speaks for themselves. And the jury will see that and make the correct decision.” “We knew that we would have a very hard time winning in the court systems because the judicial system was not made for everyone in the society.” “As the situation went on, the crowd began to grow and grow.” “Oh my goodness, the same playbook that they used for what happened with Oscar, they used the same thing for George Floyd. Oh, there was a crowd of angry mob people.” “They were behind them. There were people across the street, people yelling.” “We don’t know if they were going to attack us. I thought about the young man testifying in George Floyd’s case.” “You grew angrier and angrier.” “Calling the police on the police.” “911, what’s the address of the emergency?” “How do you have somebody investigate those that they work with? Of course you’re going to find that they’re going to believe the people that they work with quicker than they will believe the citizens who are filing the complaint.” “Would you like to speak with those sergeants?” “Yeah, I’d like to. He was unresponsive. He wasn’t resisting arrest or any of this.” “OK, one second.” “Murderers, bro. Y’all are just murderers, bro.” “You know, when we was going to jury trial for Oscar, they would ask questions like, ‘Do you know anybody who went to jail? Do you know anybody who had an encounter with the police?’ And as soon as the person said that, they would strike them from being a juror, right? Having a jury that consists of different backgrounds, it could help with the decision-making of innocent or guilty.” “The 27-year-old officer —” “— pleaded not guilty to the murder charge.” “His trial had been moved to Los Angeles over concerns of racial tension and intense media scrutiny.” “Everybody, let’s just pray for one minute.” “Father God, we come to you and your son named Jesus Christ. Father, we ask the people that see this —” “Every time I come to my mom’s house, I’m reminded that my son was killed here.” “My name is Sequette Clark. I’m the mother of Stephon Clark.” “22-year-old Stephon Clark was fatally shot while running from police.” “Clark was see evading authorities after allegedly smashing a car window.” “He was shot eight times in his grandmother’s backyard.” “Police apparently thinking he was holding a gun, now say it was a cellphone.” “Out of fear for their own lives, they fired their service weapon.” “And following the incident, officers manually muted their body cameras at times.” “Move over this way.” “As we watched the George Floyd trial, I invited particular members of my family because you can’t address something in the community or the city or the nation until you address it at home with the family.” “When Mr. Floyd was in distress, Mr. Chauvin wouldn’t help him, didn’t help him.” “So that’s just how they left my boy out there. They handcuffed him after he was dead.” “Excessive force.” “Excessive force and lethal force after the fact of death. I felt saddened, heavy, drained. I felt as if I was a slave 400 years ago. Just hearing how he was dead, seeing how he was dead. And then to turn around and hear the defense’s attempt to bring up the fact that we should not focus on the —” “— 9 minutes and 29 seconds —” “— that it took to kill George Floyd. But we should focus on what went on ahead of that. Anything that does not deal directly with the murder of George Floyd is irrelevant in my opinion.” “He’s 6 to 6 and a half feet tall. You did not know that he had taken heroin. Mr. Floyd did use a counterfeit $20 bill to purchase a pack of cigarettes. Mr. Floyd put drugs in his mouth.” “Poppa’s already dead. George Floyd is already dead.” “That’s right. That’s right.” “So now you’re resurrecting him just to kill him all over again.” “Basically.” “Defame him in order to justify the wrongdoing of your officers, reminded me exactly of what the district attorney did to Stephon.” “The cellphone examination revealed a domestic violence incident that happened with the mother of his children. Texts and phone calls showing that he was seeking drugs and a photograph of his hand holding 10 Xanax pills.” “What was on his cellphone has zero to do with the actions of the police officers at the time of his homicide. I feel like it’s a bittersweet thing that’s happening watching the George Floyd trial. Because I’m optimistic that this is a piece of justice for the death of my son.” “We might not be here. They’re going to get him. They’re going to get him.” “Was a crime committed? The answer to that question is no. And as a result, we will not charge these officers with any criminal liability related to the shooting death or the use of force of Stephon Clark.” “April 14, 1991: King fights emotional and physical scars. So this is basically a photo album book of my dad’s newspaper articles since he’s been in the news. Years and years and years. You throw someone to the wolves and you expect them to be normal. You know, there’s no such thing as normal after that. And then, can you imagine how many Rodney Kings there is that never got videotaped? There’s plenty of them.” “I would have prayed and hoped that Oscar’s trial would have been televised because America has to really look in the mirror and say, ‘Are all people being treated equally?’” “There was excessive use of force against George Floyd —” “We’re not focused on the videotape, his toxicology, his heart condition. We’re focused on the fact that several people witnessed this man get murdered.” “You can see it with our own eyes. It’s crazy.” “People don’t realize what it does to your family. It’s bigger than just a trial and this officer. We never get to see them again. We never get to smell them again and kiss them again. Our lives are completely affected forever.”

The murder trial of Derek Chauvin is at the center of a national reckoning on race and policing. But cycles of protests over systemic racism and policing are not new. We watched the trial with the families of Rodney King, Oscar Grant and Stephon Clark to see this moment in history through their eyes.

Mr. Chauvin, who was fired, has said through his attorney that his handling of Mr. Floyd’s arrest was a reasonable use of authorized force. But he was the subject of at least 22 complaints or internal investigations during his more than 19 years at the department, only one of which resulted in discipline. These new interviews show not only that he may have used excessive force in the past, but that he had used startlingly similar techniques.

All four people who told of their encounters with Mr. Chauvin had a history of run-ins with law enforcement, mostly for traffic and nonviolent offenses.

Ms. Code’s arrest occurred on June 25, 2017. In a court filing, Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric J. Nelson, said the officer acted properly in the case, responding to “a violent crime in a volatile situation.” He said that “there was nothing unreasonable or unauthorized about Mr. Chauvin’s actions.”

Ms. Code’s mother had accused her of trying to choke her with an extension cord, according to the arrest report. Ms. Code said in an interview that her mother was swinging the cord around, and that she merely grabbed hold of it.

She said she had left the house to cool off after the fight and when she returned, Mr. Chauvin and his partner had arrived. In the prosecutors’ description, based on Mr. Chauvin’s report and body-camera video, Mr. Chauvin told Ms. Code she was under arrest and grabbed her arm. When she pulled away, he pulled her to the ground face first and knelt on her. The two officers then picked her up and carried her outside the house, facedown.

There, prosecutors said, Mr. Chauvin knelt on the back of the handcuffed woman “even though she was offering no physical resistance at all.”

Ms. Code, in an interview, said she began pleading: “Don’t kill me.”

At that point, according to the prosecutors’ account, Mr. Chauvin told his partner to restrain Ms. Code’s ankles as well, though she “was not being physically aggressive.”

As he tied her, she said, she told the other officer, “You’re learning from an animal. That man — that’s evilness right there.”

‘You’re choking me,’ a club patron protested

Misdemeanor domestic assault and disorderly conduct charges filed against Ms. Code were ultimately dropped.

The earliest incident in which prosecutors said Mr. Chauvin used excessive force took place on Feb. 15, 2015, when he arrested Julian Hernandez — a carpenter who was on a road trip to Minneapolis to see a band at the El Nuevo Rodeo nightclub. Mr. Chauvin worked as an off-duty security officer there for almost 17 years.

The arrest report filed by Mr. Chauvin said Mr. Hernandez tried to leave the club through the wrong door, and Mr. Chauvin stopped him and escorted him down a stairwell. Mr. Hernandez said in an interview that he had been drinking, but felt like Mr. Chauvin was pushing him down the stairs.

Prosecutors said Derek Chauvin used excessive force against Julian Hernandez in 2015.
Da'Shaunae Marisa for The New York Times

Outside, Mr. Hernandez said, “things escalated.”

Mr. Chauvin’s report said that Mr. Hernandez tried to turn around as he was preparing to handcuff him, so he pushed him away “by applying pressure toward his Lingual Artery” at the top of the neck.

Mr. Hernandez said the officer told him “you just need to leave,” and he remembered thinking  that he was trying to leave but was not being allowed to do so. As Mr. Chauvin pushed him into a wall and grabbed him by the throat, Mr. Hernandez recalled thinking, “You’re choking me.”

Mr. Hernandez said he tried to sue the department, but no lawyer would take his case. He was charged with disorderly conduct, but under a court agreement he avoided punishment by staying out of trouble for a year, records show.

Mr. Nelson, the officer’s lawyer, said in a court filing that there was no evidence that Mr. Chauvin acted improperly in “dealing with a resistant, aggressive arrestee by himself.”

Under the judge’s order, only Ms. Code’s arrest, among the six cases showing what may have been excessive force, can be used at Mr. Chauvin’s trial. Prosecutors also sought to include two additional cases they said showed just the opposite — that Mr. Chauvin knew how to use reasonable force to properly restrain a person.

The judge’s order will allow them to use one of those cases: an incident in which the police department commended Mr. Chauvin and other officers for taking lifesaving steps in placing a restrained, suicidal man on his side so he could breathe. Mr. Chauvin even rode with the man to the hospital, according to prosecutors.

According to the attorney general’s office, the arrest showed that he knew how important it was to avoid breathing problems in detainees. When he did not put Mr. Floyd in a similar side position, prosecutors contend, he understood that it could jeopardize his life.

Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer objected to any of the previous arrests being admitted at his trial, which is set to begin in March. He argued that Mr. Chauvin’s actions “were not crimes,” but rather part of Mr. Chauvin’s job as an officer, and that a police supervisor at each arrest scene reviewed his use of force and concluded that it comported with department standards.

The Minneapolis Police Department did not respond to queries about past complaints against Mr. Chauvin. Critics say the department has a long history of accusations of abuse, but never fully put in place federal recommendations to implement a better system of tracking complaints and punishing officers. Only a handful over the years have faced firing or serious punishment.

‘I can’t breathe,’ the man said

In another case prosecutors highlighted to try to establish a pattern of excessive force, a man said he landed in the hospital overnight after an encounter with Mr. Chauvin. The man, Jimmy Bostic, had made a purchase at the Midtown Global Market in April 2016 and was waiting for a ride when private security guards asked him to leave. A different shop owner had accused him of panhandling, the arrest report said. Mr. Bostic argued, and Mr. Chauvin was called in.

Mr. Chauvin escorted Mr. Bostic outside, writing in the arrest report that Mr. Bostic had threatened to spit on the owner.

“I closed distance with” Mr. Bostic, Mr. Chauvin wrote, “and secured his neck/head area with my hands.”

Mr. Bostic said in an interview that as Mr. Chauvin and the private security guards attempted to put him in cuffs, he yanked his arm back.

“The next thing I felt was arms just wrapped around my neck,” he said. “I started telling him, ‘Let go, I’m having trouble breathing. I have asthma. I can’t breathe.’”

Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer, in a court filing, said the officer “acted reasonably” and followed police policy in restraining Mr. Bostic, who he said was refusing orders and making threats.

After he was released from police custody at the scene, Mr. Bostic said, emergency medical workers took him to a hospital. Suffering from an asthma attack, he said, he stayed for over a day. A disorderly conduct charge against him was ultimately dropped.

“Looking back on Mr. Floyd, that could have been me,” said Mr. Bostic, who is now in state prison on an unrelated burglary conviction. “And I would no longer be alive right now to even tell my story.”

Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

Monroe Skinaway, a 74-year-old Minneapolis resident, was a chance witness to another incident prosecutors cited that occurred in March 2019. He said in an interview that he had called the police after he spotted his grandson’s stolen car parked at a South Minneapolis gas station.

As he answered police questions about the car, Mr. Skinaway said, he saw a young man wandering nearby, asking officers to give him a ride. Mr. Skinaway said the man seemed “off.”

The man, named in the arrest report as Sir Rilee Peet, 26, followed one officer to his squad car. After Mr. Peet refused to take his hands out of his pockets, the officer tried to grab him, and they scuffled, the police report said.

That is when the other officer, identified in the report as Mr. Chauvin, sprayed Mr. Peet with Mace. Mr. Chauvin restrained him by the neck and pinned him facedown on the ground by kneeling on his lower back, according to the prosecutors’ description of body-camera video.

Mr. Skinaway said he remembers seeing the officer on top of Mr. Peet, but also something not mentioned in Mr. Chauvin’s account in the arrest report. Mr. Skinaway said the officer put Mr. Peet’s head, facedown, in a rain puddle. Other officers were present as well, he said.

“He said, ‘I can’t breathe — can I just put my head up?’” Mr. Skinaway said. “And they just held his face in the water, and I couldn’t see a purpose for that.”

Mr. Skinaway said he was about seven feet away as he watched Mr. Peet struggle for air, bubbles surfacing as he tried to breathe. He estimated that the officer kept Mr. Peet in the puddle for two to three minutes. Whenever Mr. Peet managed to turn his head for air, Mr. Skinaway said, the officer grabbed him by his long hair and put his head back in the water.

When he spoke by phone with a reporter, Mr. Skinaway said he did not know the officer’s name or that there was a connection with the Floyd case, but the details he described match those noted in the police report and prosecutors’ account.

Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer, Mr. Nelson, said in a court filing that the officer had acted according to police policy. “It was after midnight in South Minneapolis, and a man who refused to remove his hands from his pockets repeatedly approached the officers after being told not to,” he said. The filing said Mr. Peet’s actions had created concern for the officers’ safety.

Mr. Peet was charged with misdemeanor obstruction of the legal process and disorderly conduct, but it is unclear from court records what happened to the charges. The records show Mr. Peet has a history of court-ordered treatment for mental illness. In a phone call, Mr. Peet told a reporter that he did not recall the encounter.

Some of those whom Mr. Chauvin arrested said that learning the same officer had been involved in Mr. Floyd’s death made them regret they had not pushed harder to hold the officer and the department accountable.

“I don’t have nothing against cops, I got relatives that are cops,” said Mr. Hernandez, the carpenter arrested at the nightclub. “But he should have never been on the force that long.”

‘Don’t Kill Me’: Others Tell of Abuse by Officer Who Knelt on George Floyd - The New York Times

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