Massachusetts law enforcement leaders who watched the widely-circulated video of a Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee to the back of a man’s neck for several minutes as the man, George Floyd, said he could not breathe, said that officer used excessive force and his actions would have violated their policies.
“Necks are out of bounds completely," Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes said. His department rewrote its policy to make that abundantly clear after the 2014 death of Eric Garner, who was put in a choke hold by a New York City Police officer.
“There was a time when a choke hold . . . could inadvertently happen . . . but since that incident, that is all off the table," Kyes said. "The neck is so fragile, our windpipe is there. No, that’s not an acceptable tactic at all.”
Floyd’s fatal encounter with officers in Minnesota started Monday night when he was accused of passing a phony $20 bill at a nearby store. A passerby captured video of his last moments. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has fired the four officers involved in Floyd’s arrest.
Members of Floyd’s family appeared on CNN Tuesday night and called for the four officers to face murder charges.
In Massachusetts, some law enforcement leaders emphasized that officers should avoid using physical force whenever possible — but if they do have to physically subdue someone, the neck is off limits.
“We neither teach nor condone any physical control tactic that could cause a suspect to stop breathing or lose consciousness," said Colonel Christopher Mason, superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police. “Furthermore, even when troopers are required to apply approved control tactics, we demand that they continually monitor the suspect to ensure he continues to breathe and maintain consciousness.”
Both Kyes and Transit Police Superintendent Richard Sullivan said that when officers are struggling with a combative subject who appears to be trying to get the officer’s weapon, police could find themselves with a foot on the person’s neck. But that should last a few seconds, not several minutes as allegedly happened in the Minneapolis case.
Sullivan, whose department periodically runs academies for new police recruits from around the state, said the length of time that the Minneapolis officer had his knee on Floyd’s neck was “outrageous” and inconsistent with appropriate use-of-force practices by police.
“In the video that I saw Mr. Floyd was not acting in a manner that required the knee to the back of his neck,” Sullivan said. “The length of time that Mr. Floyd was on his face with an officer’s weight concentrated on the back of his neck — I saw nothing that justified that.”
Sullivan said that once a subject stops struggling, the officer must also discontinue the physical force used to bring the crisis to an end. Having successfully de-escalated the situation, the officer’s primary duty is to now obtain medical help for the subject, especially if they have been told by the subject they cannot breathe or are hurt, Sullivan said.
“Mr. Floyd’s behavior appeared compliant to me” in the video he has so far seen of the incident, Sullivan said. “If someone is compliant, they are no longer posing a threat. . . . At that point it’s incumbent on the police officer to de-escalate the situation.”
Kyes said that whenever a death results from interaction between a member of the public and a police officer, there should be an independent investigation by a department’s internal affairs unit in conjunction with the district attorney and another law enforcement agency. That civil inquiry can be conducted in parallel with a criminal investigation, he said.
“Police officers are definitely not exempt from the law,” Kyes said. “When the interaction between a member of the public and a police officer results in someone losing their life, that is incredibly, incredibly tragic."
Retired Massachusetts State Police Sergeant Timothy R. Whelan, now a Republican state representative from Cape Cod, also harshly criticized the Minneapolis officer.
“There is no excuse for this. You don’t treat a dog like this, never mind a fellow human being," Whelan wrote in a tweet that included a still frame of the officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck. “This is a horror.”
There is no excuse for this. You don’t treat a dog like this, never mind a fellow human being. This is a horror. The majority (99.9%) of police officers conduct themselves with honor, in highest level of service to their community. Prayers for justice for George Floyd’s family. pic.twitter.com/12BUu2rNRv— Rep. Tim Whelan (@TRWhelan) May 27, 2020
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
John R. Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe. Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.