On May 25, 2020, the Minneapolis Police Department lied.
“Man dies after a medical incident during a police interaction,” said the police department’s official statement. Nothing in its nearly 200 words about a handcuffed suspect who “appeared to be in medical distress” was true.
Of course, George Floyd’s “medical distress” was caused by Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. As the nation marks the sorrowful first anniversary of Floyd’s murder, let’s also recall that Minneapolis police did what too many police officers do, often with impunity — lie to the public. Even under oath in court, it’s so common for cops to lie there’s even slang for it: testilying.
At least Floyd’s family only had to wait overnight to learn what really happened to him. Police told Ronald Greene’s family two years ago that he died in a car accident after a pursuit by Louisiana State Police. Last week, police body-camera footage obtained by the Associated Press showed that after the crash, Greene, while handcuffed, was tased, kicked, punched, put in a choke hold, and dragged by his shackled ankles.
According to AP, Greene was left face down for more than nine minutes while police used sanitizer wipes to remove his blood from their faces and hands. Their original incident report never mentioned arresting him or using force.
“People lie to protect themselves,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program at ACLU of Massachusetts. “Fortunately, it makes it easier to find out that they’re lying because of body-worn cameras or surveillance cameras or people with cellphones.”
In 2015, Michael Slager, a North Charleston, S.C., cop, claimed he killed Walter Scott after the man took Slager’s Taser and pointed it at the officer. That same year, Laquan McDonald, 17, was shot by Jason Van Dyke, a Chicago cop who said the teenager was moving toward him with a knife. In Louisville last year, officers initially listed no injuries and said there was no forced entry at Breonna Taylor’s apartment.
A citizen’s video proved Scott was shot five times in the back while running away from Slager, who then dropped his Taser next to Scott’s body. A surveillance camera showed McDonald walking away from officers before Van Dyke shot him 16 times. After cops entered Taylor’s apartment with a no-knock warrant, she was shot at least eight times.
Setting federal standards for no-knock warrants is one of the goals of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Yet even if the bill passes into law, Hall said, “There’s not really anything either lawmakers or activists will be able to change when it comes to the culture of policing that really gets to the heart of these situations.”
That pernicious culture — the so-called blue wall of silence, a “warrior mentality” among officers, and the reluctance of juries to hold officers accountable — can be impenetrable by even the most ambitious reforms.
And video evidence doesn’t guarantee accountability when officers are caught lying. In February, a jury refused to indict Buffalo officers who shoved a 75-year-old protester with enough force that his head hit the ground and blood poured from his ear. Cops originally said the man tripped and fell during “a skirmish involving protesters.”
With rare exceptions, police officers are given the benefit of the doubt even when evidence points to situations that should have ended with de-escalation, not serious injury or death. This is why the elimination of qualified immunity, which shields individual officers from liability in most civil lawsuits, is crucial to the policing bill as well as a major sticking point between Senate Democrats and Republicans.
“No number of reforms is going to change the way police are trained, the biases they bring into the profession, and the culture of toxic masculinity that permeates the profession,” Hall said. “That’s always going to be an aspect of policing until we drastically reduce the footprint of policing and outsource those services to more humane and health-based services.”
In policing, lies and gaslighting can be weapons as powerful as a gun. Officers exist in a society that grants them both extraordinary latitude in using lethal force and believability as a default. This neither protects nor serves the public; it endangers them. As we honor Floyd and every victim of police violence, we should remember that if not for Darnella Frazier’s viral cellphone video, the truth would have perished with Floyd, and Chauvin would still be a cop instead of a convicted murderer.