MINNEAPOLIS — Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo’s unequivocal and historic testimony condemning ex-officer Derek Chauvin’s actions on the day George Floyd was killed revealed the latest crack in the longstanding “blue wall” code of silence by police.
Arradondo spent most of the day on the witness stand Monday, recounting in detail how he learned of Floyd’s death, and how Chauvin’s conduct was not in line with department policies at nearly every step.
“Once Mr. Floyd had stopped resisting, and certainly once he was in distress and trying to verbalize that, that should have stopped,” Arradondo said of the force being used on the handcuffed Floyd in his calm, clear testimony. “There’s an initial reasonableness of trying to just get him under control in the first few seconds, but once there was no longer any resistance and clearly when Mr. Floyd was no longer responsive and even motionless, to continue to apply that level of force to a person pronged out, handcuffed behind their back, that in no way shape or form is anything that is by policy, part of our training and is certainly not part of our ethics or values.”
His remarks immediately ricocheted around the social media and were rebroadcast on TV news outlets, as an extraordinary moment in a case that has gripped the country. But they also took on a symbolic significance for a department, whose culture has long discouraged officers from criticizing a colleague’s conduct, at least not publicly.
Chauvin faces murder and manslaughter charges, while the two officers who held Floyd’s back and legs, Kueng and Lane, and a third officer who stood guard, Tou Thao, have each been charged with aiding and abetting murder.
Some watching the trial saw Arradondo’s testimony, and that of homicide Lt. Richard Zimmerman and David Pleoger, a retired MPD sergeant, as striking a blow to the “blue wall of silence” that usually protects police wrongdoing.
Civil rights attorney Al Goins said that he thinks that MPD officials have been united in their condemnation of Chauvin, because of the public and visceral manner in which Floyd died.
“What could be the possible interest in the police trying to defend that? Their best defense as a department is to try to say this is wrong, this is not who we are, and that’s not who we want to be in the future,” he said.
Some critics on social media argued that Arradondo’s testimony was self-serving, and that by painting his former officer as an outlier, or “bad apple,” he could deflect attention from the aggressive training that his department was giving out. Others pointed out Arradondo disciplined an officer who spoke as an anonymous source for a GQ magazine article criticizing the department’s “toxic culture” was later reprimanded for speaking to the press without permission.
Last week, Zimmerman, the longest tenured officer in the department, Chauvin’s actions kneeling on Floyd’s neck as “totally unnecessary.” The longtime homicide chief was among the group of officers who issued a public letter condemning Floyd’s killing and pledging to “work with you and for you to regain your trust.”
“Like us, Derek Chauvin took an oath to hold the sanctity of life most precious,” the letter read. “Derek Chauvin failed as a human and stripped George Floyd of his dignity and life. This is not who we are.”
In many ways, the Chauvin case stood in stark contrast to the last major police brutality case in Minneapolis, of now-former officer Mohamed Noor.
In that trial, prosecutors openly complained of officers changing their accounts of what happened on the night Noor shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond while responding to her 911 call. Dozens of officers also refused to come in for voluntary statements, prompting prosecutors to take the unusual step of issuing subpoenas to compel their cooperation.
Attorneys on both sides of the Chauvin case said in court earlier this year that they faced no such resistance from officers.
The Hennepin County Attorney’s office, which prosecuted Noor, but is no longer involved in the Chauvin case, repeatedly accused the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) of falling short in their investigation of the shooting, including failing to test key evidence and interview certain witnesses.
Relations between the county attorney’s office and the union that represents the city’s rank-and-file officers soured after the 2018 trial of Efrem Hamilton, a downtown officer who was charged and later acquitted of firing at a car full of teenagers whom he mistook for suspects in a shooting. No one was injured in the incident. But, allegations of dishonesty surfaced during that trial, when an assistant county attorney openly questioned whether a veteran homicide detective gave differing accounts of what happened, prompting a defense objection that the prosecutor was being “argumentative” with her own witness.
In 2019, St. Paul officer Brian Ficcadenti described the existence of an unwritten “code of silence” among officers while testifying in the trial of St. Paul officer Brett Palkowitsch, who is charged with violating the civil rights of Frank Baker, kicking him as he was being bitten by a police dog. Ficcadenti told prosecutors that he was reluctant to criticize Palkowitsch because it might invite retaliation from fellow officers for informing on another officer.
At the time of Chauvin’s trial, the presiding judge agreed to bar prosecutors from mentioning the existence of a blue wall of silence, regarding officers’ interactions with their union during the investigation — attorneys for the four since-fired officers on trial for Floyd’s death have made a similar request.
Since Floyd’s death, several states have passed laws requiring officers to intervene, and not just report, when they encounter another officer using excessive force, including Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nevada and New Jersey. In California, lawmakers last year considered legislation that would criminalize a blue code of silence, punishing officers for failing to intervene when witnessing colleagues using potentially excessive force.