A white former Minneapolis police officer was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter Friday after a shocking video of him kneeling for nearly nine minutes on the neck of a Black man set off a wave of protests across the country.
The former officer, Derek Chauvin, 44, was taken into custody on charges that carry a combined maximum 35-year sentence. Chauvin kept his knee planted even as the man, George Floyd, told all four officers involved in his arrest that he could not breathe. At times, Floyd begged “please” and cried out “mama,” according to a statement of probable cause released by prosecutors.
“The defendant had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in total,” the court document said. “Two minutes and 53 seconds of this was after Mr. Floyd was non-responsive.”
Potentially complicating the prosecution of Chauvin, preliminary results from an autopsy found that Floyd, 46, did not appear to have died from strangulation or asphyxiation. “Mr. Floyd had underlying health conditions including coronary artery disease and hypertensive heart disease,” prosecutors said, also listing “potential intoxicants.” The combined effects of his conditions and the way police restrained him “likely contributed to his death.”
City officials were urging calm the day after protests turned violent and a police precinct went up in flames. Mayor Jacob Frey imposed an overnight curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. through Monday morning, and Gov. Tim Walz said, while deploying the National Guard, that he wanted to lift up the voices of “those who are expressing rage and anger and those who are demanding justice” and “not those who throw firebombs.”
“I refuse to have it take away the attention from the stain that we need to be working on,” he said. “These are things that have been brewing in this country for 400 years.”
By evening, protests were once again underway in cities across the country. In Atlanta, a demonstration grew tense as hundreds of protesters gathered outside CNN headquarters, some jumping on police cars and setting one on fire. In New York, protesters clashed with police around Barclays Center in Brooklyn. And in Washington, a large crowd gathered and chanted outside the White House, prompting the Secret Service to put the building on lockdown.
President Donald Trump, who previously called the video of Floyd’s death “shocking,” drew criticism for a tweet early Friday that called the protesters “thugs” and said that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The comments prompted Twitter to attach a warning to the tweet, saying that it violated the company’s rules about “glorifying violence.”
Later in the day, the president declared that “law and order will prevail” as protests continued to intensify. “We can’t allow a situation like happened in Minneapolis to descend further into lawless anarchy and chaos,” Trump said during a round-table event with company executives on opening the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Addressing his earlier comments on Twitter, he said, “The looters should not be allowed to drown out the voices of so many peaceful protesters. They hurt so badly what is happening.”
The delay in arresting Chauvin was one factor spurring the demonstrations, but the city’s police force has found itself criticized on all sides. At first it was lambasted for the volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets that left demonstrators dazed, bruised and angry. Then police were denounced for excessive restraint, taking the unusual decision to abandon a police station to protesters who quickly torched it.
The police actions in Minneapolis, in the death of Floyd and the heavy-handed tactics against protesters, have once again surfaced the long and painful history of police brutality against black Americans and revived the kind of protests the nation saw from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore several years ago. As parts of Minneapolis burned, protests burst out in various cities including Louisville, Kentucky; Phoenix; Denver; New York and Los Angeles.
On Friday, Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer representing Floyd’s family, released a statement calling the arrest of Chauvin “a welcome but overdue step on the road to justice.” But he said the charges did not go far enough.
“We expected a first-degree murder charge. We want a first-degree murder charge. And we want to see the other officers arrested,” said the statement, which was attributed to Floyd’s family and to Crump.
“The pain that the black community feels over this murder and what it reflects about the treatment of black people in America is raw and is spilling out onto streets across America,” the statement said.
It was not clear that charging one officer would still the passions that have incited not just Minneapolis but the entire nation.
The Republican and Democratic chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary committees both said Friday that they were planning to hold hearings on excessive use of force by police and racial violence.
Some lawmakers and criminal justice experts have called the response in Minneapolis inept as state and city officials, hoping to assert some semblance of control over the smoldering streets, have struggled to find the right balance between deploying enough force to stop the demonstrations while not deploying so much as to spur more.
“The response from the police has been inadequate at every level,” said Patricia Torres Ray, the state senator who represents the downtown district where police officers abandoned the 3rd Precinct building even as small businesses burned and residents cowered in their homes. “If they are here to protect my community that is what they need to do,” she said.
Police officers in Minneapolis and other cities have come under increasing criticism for strong-armed tactics like the use of tear gas, military equipment and rubber bullets, repeating actions that devastated other cities like Ferguson in 2014.
“You do not want to have them visibly lining the streets in a protest about police violence, but you should certainly have your resources nearby ready to deploy,” said Seth W. Stoughton, a former police officer who studies policing and is a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.
Some experts denounced the decision to evacuate the 3rd Precinct rather than secure it.
“The police precinct is iconic and representative of the community itself,” said Rich Stanek, a 24-year veteran of the Minneapolis police force who also served as sheriff of Hennepin County from 2006 to 2019, running on the Republican ticket. Losing it could be compared to losing your flag in war or letting foreign marauders seize an embassy, he said, adding: “They burned it; they looted it; they made a spectacle of it. It was disheartening.”
Video from the scene and eyewitness accounts depict a cat-and-mouse game that evolved through dusk. Protesters rushed a temporary chain-link fence encircling the precinct parking lot to hurl rocks or burning objects, while officers in protective gear sheltering behind a concrete wall occasionally charged the fence to fire off stun grenades.
Soon after nightfall, a police cruiser rammed the fence, shoving it aside. It was followed in quick succession by almost 20 vehicles, including an armored truck, that departed down Snelling Avenue in a long cavalcade. Frey said in an overnight news conference that he had decided avoiding possible deaths in a clash was more important than saving the building.
Experts wondered why the building was left isolated after having been a flashpoint since Monday, when Floyd died in a hospital not far away. The governor had announced that he was sending in the National Guard, and although about 150 soldiers had deployed by early Thursday evening, none were around the precinct, Stanek said.
In general, experts said, violent demonstrations represent a failure of policing and a sign that a Police Department has let its community relations fray badly. If officers once treated such conflict like warfare, modern community policing helped establish the idea that good relations act as a shock absorber.
“You build goodwill as a result of years of hard work because the dividend comes when you have the crisis,” said Joseph Brann, the former director of the Justice Department’s community-oriented policing office and a former police chief in Hayward, California.
Torres, the state senator, said police got off on the wrong foot from the first day of protests, when peaceful demonstrators marched from the scene of Floyd’s arrest to the 3rd Precinct, demanding action.
They were met by police officers installing concrete barricades. “The message was very clear: We are preparing for a fight with you; we are not preparing for a conversation in order to address the problem that we have in front of us,” she said. “Their reception triggered a lot of anger in our community. From there on it deteriorated by the hour.”
Walz admitted to gaps in planning in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. But given what had happened, he suggested that no amount of preparation might have contained the anger. “Watching what happened to George Floyd had people say, ‘To hell with staying home,’” the governor said. “The idea that we would go in there and break up those peaceful expressions of grief and rage was ridiculous.”
Other senior police leaders, while sharing in the outrage over Floyd’s death, questioned the decision by authorities to stand down and the decision by some protesters to veer from peaceful demonstration to looting and arson. “I think I’ve been really clear about my feelings that charges should be filed against the officers in Minneapolis, but we cannot have chaos because when you have chaos people get hurt,” said Art Acevedo, the police chief in Houston, where Floyd grew up.
Cities that have burned provide terrible examples on both ends of the scale. Experts said police in Ferguson went overboard during the 2014 protests in the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing. But in Los Angeles in 1992, when four police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, police, unprepared, retreated as protests gathered steam.
“That just led to pandemonium and burning down a part of the city,” said Joe Domanick, associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College. In Minneapolis, he said, officials were reluctant to crack down at the outset because they did not want to be seen as defending Floyd’s death. “They erred on the side of caution, way too much, and let everything get out of hand.”
In the years since, Los Angeles police have enacted reforms that included more community policing, more minority officers and less use of force.
In Minneapolis, Floyd’s family and the lawyer representing them said they wanted U.S. cities to reform the training and other problems that led to his death. They emphasized nonlethal restraining techniques, the recognition of breathing problems and legal obligations to seek medical care.
“For four officers to inflict this kind of unnecessary, lethal force — or watch it happen — despite outcry from witnesses who were recording the violence — demonstrates a breakdown in training and policy by the city,” said the statement from Crump and the family.