National News

'I can't breathe': 4 Minneapolis officers fired after black man dies in custody

Posted May 27, 2020 1:02 a.m. EDT
Updated May 27, 2020 12:32 p.m. EDT

The FBI and Minnesota law enforcement authorities are investigating the arrest of a black man who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee, in an episode that was recorded on video by a bystander and sparked large protests in Minneapolis on Tuesday.

After the graphic video circulated widely on social media, the mayor denounced the actions of the four officers who were involved and said Tuesday afternoon that they had been fired. He identified the victim as George Floyd.

Floyd, 46, a resident of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb, was pronounced dead at 9:25 p.m. Monday at Hennepin County Medical Center, according to the medical examiner.

Floyd’s family members told CNN on Tuesday night that the officers should be charged with murder.

“They treated him worse than they treat animals,” said Philonise Floyd, Floyd’s brother. “They took a life — they deserve life.”

The arrest took place Monday evening, the Minneapolis Police Department said in a statement, after officers responded to a call about a man suspected of forgery. The police said the man, was found sitting on top of a blue car and “appeared to be under the influence.”

“He was ordered to step from his car,” the department’s statement said. “After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.”

The statement said that officers had called for an ambulance.

On Tuesday morning, without referring to the video recorded by a bystander, the police updated a statement, titled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction,” that said that additional information had “been made available” and that the FBI was joining the investigation.

On Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis tweeted that four officers involved in the case had been terminated. “This is the right call,” he said.

The Police Department’s statement said that no weapons had been used and that the officers’ body cameras were recording. Frey said at a news conference Tuesday that he had seen the video “taken and posted by a civilian” but not the body camera footage.

The bystander video shows a white Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee into a black man’s neck during an arrest, as the man repeatedly says, “I can’t breathe,” and, “Please, I can’t breathe.”

As the video spread on social media on Monday night, the arrest quickly drew comparisons to the case of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died in New York police custody in 2014, after an officer held him in a chokehold. Garner’s repeated plea of “I can’t breathe” — also recorded by a cellphone — became a rallying cry at demonstrations against police misconduct around the country.

“Being black in America should not be a death sentence,” Frey said in a statement Tuesday. “For five minutes, we watched a white officer press his knee into a black man’s neck. Five minutes.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, condemned the force used by the officers.

“George Floyd deserved better and his family deserves justice,” Biden wrote on Twitter on Tuesday night. “His life mattered.”

Hundreds of people gathered Tuesday at the intersection where Floyd had been subdued, protesting the conduct of the officers.

Local media reported that two people had been shot near the protest, but a police department spokesman, John Elder, said one person had been shot “away” from the protest and described the person’s injuries as not life-threatening. It was not immediately clear who did the shooting, he said.

Some protesters vandalized police vehicles with graffiti and targeted the precinct house where the four officers had been assigned, Elder said.

Police fired foam projectiles known as marking rounds and used tear gas to try to repel some of the protesters, he said. The Police Department did not immediately say if there had been any arrests.

The video recorded in Minneapolis shows that, after a few minutes, the man, lying face down in the street with his hands cuffed behind his back, becomes silent and motionless; the officer continues to pin the man to the pavement with his knee.

Bystanders plead and curse, begging the officer to stop and telling him the man’s nose is bleeding. Another officer faces the people gathered on the sidewalk. An ambulance medic arrives and, reaching under the officer’s knee, feels for a pulse on the man’s neck.

The medic turns away, and a stretcher is wheeled over. The arrested man is then rolled onto the stretcher, loaded into an ambulance and taken away.

Jovanni Thunstrom, who employed Floyd as a bouncer at his restaurant, Conga Latin Bistro, said in an interview Tuesday that he was in disbelief when he saw the video.

“It’s hard to believe a police officer would do that,” said Thunstrom, who was also Floyd’s landlord. “He wasn’t a threat to justify excessive force used on him.”

Thunstrom said that Floyd had become a friend during the five years that he worked for him and the four years that he rented a duplex unit from him in St. Louis Park.

“No one had nothing bad to say about him,” he said. “They all are shocked he’s dead. He never caused a fight or was rude to people.”

The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but the head of the union said in a statement to local news media that people should not rush to judgment while the investigation is ongoing.

“Our officers are fully cooperating,” the union head, Lt. Bob Kroll, said. “We must review all video. We must wait for the medical examiner’s report.”

It could take at least three weeks to determine the cause and manner of Floyd’s death, Hennepin County officials said.

Frey said Tuesday that he did not know how the initial police statement, describing a “medical incident,” had come to be written, but he said he wanted to be “absolutely as transparent as possible.”

“It’s the kind of thing where you don’t hide from the truth, you lean into it because our city is going to be better off for it, no matter how ugly, awful it is,” he said. “If it points out the institutional racism that we are still working through right now, well good — it means that we’ve got a lot of work to go.”

The video did not show what had happened before the officer pinned the man to the ground by his neck. Chief Medaria Arradondo of the Minneapolis Police Department said at a news conference Tuesday that he had received information the night before that led him to deem it “necessary to contact the special agent in charge of the Minneapolis bureau of the FBI.”

He said he had asked the agency to investigate and declined to comment on what information he had received.

The FBI is conducting a federal civil rights investigation, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said in a statement. The state bureau also said that it was conducting its own investigation at the request of the Police Department, and that it would release its findings to the Hennepin County district attorney’s office.

The names of the officers will be released after interviews, it said. Benjamin L. Crump, a Tallahassee, Florida, lawyer who has risen to prominence by taking on similar cases, said he had been retained to represent Floyd’s family. “This abusive, excessive and inhumane use of force cost the life of a man who was being detained by the police for questioning about a nonviolent charge,” Crump said in a statement.

In a separate statement, John Gordon, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, called the video “horrifying” and said it underscored the immediate need for a thorough, fair and transparent investigation into the case. He added that “the officers involved — not just the perpetrator, but also those who stood by and did nothing — must be held accountable.”

Tim Walz, the governor of Minnesota, called the episode “sickening.”

“We will get answers and seek justice,” he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Tina Smith, Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Betty McCollum, all Democrats from Minnesota, wrote a letter Tuesday asking the U.S. attorney for Minnesota and the Hennepin County attorney to investigate the officers’ actions.

“Police brutality must end,” Omar wrote on Twitter. “We must pursue justice and get answers to this unjust killing.”

Similar high-profile cases have generated large protests and given rise to a national debate over police conduct toward black people, as happened in 2016 after an African American man, Philando Castile, was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic stop in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, was later acquitted of second-degree manslaughter and of endangering safety by discharging a firearm in the shooting. In a Facebook event on Tuesday afternoon, Frey said he understood and supported the rights of people who would protest the episode, but asked that protesters wear masks and respect social distancing procedures.

“I encourage people to voice their opinions and anger, their heartbreak and their sadness because undoubtedly it will be there,” he said.

Thunstrom, the restaurant owner, said that the last time he had heard from Floyd was when he paid his rent last week and told him that he was looking for a job. The restaurant where Floyd worked has been closed to on-site dining since March because of the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

“I hope something changes, because I lost a friend,” Thunstrom said.

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