The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on Monday has sparked an unprecedented condemnation from police chiefs and sheriffs across the country, and in Tampa Bay.
Law enforcement leaders usually wait for a full investigation before commenting on the actions taken by members of their profession. But agency heads from Orlando to Chattanooga to Tucson have called the behavior by the police officers who apprehended Floyd disturbing and a blatant violation of how officers are trained.
Several Tampa Bay commanders said this week that they felt compelled to speak out because of what they saw in the cellphone video that captured the encounter between Floyd and the four Minneapolis Police Department officers.
“It’s hard to gather facts, and you want to be factual before you start commenting on things,” Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan said Thursday. "But this is just so bad.”
The video, recorded by a bystander, shows 46-year-old Floyd, who is black, face-down on the ground as a white officer kneeled on his neck. Floyd can be heard moaning and saying, “I can’t breathe." It’s the same statement that became a rallying cry in 2014 after Eric Garner, another black man killed in police custody, made the same plea while a New York City police officer held him in a chokehold.
After several minutes, Floyd fell silent and motionless while the officer continued to kneel on his neck. A paramedic arrived and checked Floyd’s pulse, then helped turn Floyd onto his back and load him onto a stretcher. Floyd died shortly afterward.
The video doesn’t show what happened before Floyd was on the ground, but the Minneapolis Police Department said in a statement that they were responding to a call about a man suspected of forgery, and that Floyd had “physically resisted" officers. On Tuesday, the four officers involved were fired, and the FBI joined Minnesota authorities in investigating the incident. Protests have broken out across the city and country, with calls for the officers to be prosecuted.
There were several aspects of the incident that go against police training and best practices, said Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina School of Law associate professor and expert on use of force by police.
It’s common for an officer to take someone to the ground and put weight on them while they’re being handcuffed, Stoughton said, but that pressure should fall across the upper back — not the neck.
To Stoughton, an even bigger issue is that Floyd was face-down for so long — and well after he was handcuffed and cooperative. That can make one vulnerable to positional asphyxia, or a condition in which someone can’t get enough oxygen because of the way their body is positioned. Officers should instead turn the person over and sit them up.
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The behavior by the other officers on the scene was also concerning, Stoughton said. None intervened, even as Floyd stopped moving. An officer interacting with bystanders joked that “this is why you don’t do drugs, kids," which Stoughton said is something that is “almost guaranteed to escalate the situation."
“That is not only disrespectful to Mr. Floyd. It’s also just stupid," he said. “Think of any motto that’s plastered across the side of any police car in the country, and it’s just not consistent with what we see in the video. This video just says, 'We don’t give a s--t.’ The cold, callous disregard is pretty egregious.”
Tampa Bay law enforcement leaders said that blocking someone’s airway is neither taught nor allowed by their agencies, although in cases where the use of deadly force is permitted, officers have wide latitude to take whatever action is needed to protect themselves and the public. Even so, the force applied should end once the situation is under control.
“I looked at it (the video), kept looking at it and kept looking at it and kept looking at it trying to figure out why the guy had his knee on his neck," said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is the president of the Florida Sheriffs Association.
Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter said he was also troubled by the length of time Floyd was in that position, as did St. Petersburg Chief Tony Holloway, who said of the officers’ conduct: "You’re never going to be able to justify that to me.”
Both chiefs, as well as their Tampa counterpart, Dugan, said they implore their officers to intervene if they see a colleague doing something wrong, and to report it afterward.
“When you see something,” Holloway said he tells his officers, "pretend I’m on one shoulder, your family is on the other shoulder and the community is watching.”
Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times that “the actions of the officers as portrayed on cellphone video are not in line with the training we provide our deputies here in Hillsborough County.” He called Floyd’s death “deeply disturbing."
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office did not make Sheriff Chris Nocco available for comment.
When an incident involving excessive police force or a questionable shooting goes viral and generates outrage, Slaughter said it undermines the relationship between law enforcement and residents across the country.
“I’m always concerned, when I see a video like that, about police-community relations," he said. “Law enforcement is a profession that we are judged nationally as opposed to individually.”