The officer with the most seniority on the Minneapolis Police Department said on Friday that he’s never been trained to put his knee on someone’s neck, noting that doing so could kill someone.
The senior officer, Lt. Richard Zimmerman of the department’s homicide unit, also testified that putting someone in handcuffs brings the threat level “way down” – and he said anyone who is cuffed while facedown on the ground should be moved immediately.
The trial of former officer Derek Chauvin on murder charges has entered a more technical phase, centering on officers’ application of police policy and George Floyd’s medical status in the final minutes of his life.
Zimmerman was called to the scene outside the Cup Foods in south Minneapolis last May, hours after Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for around nine minutes. Chauvin was arrested days after Floyd died in police custody.
In court Friday morning, Zimmerman said that restraining Floyd in the way the officers did and for as long as they did was “uncalled for.” He added, “I saw no reason why the officers felt they were in danger, if that’s what they felt.”
Use of force continuum
Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank asked Zimmerman about the department’s training in the “use of force continuum” — which Zimmerman said is the police department’s policy covering how officers behave when they respond to a scene.
The first level, he said, is simply the officer’s presence in uniform; then, officers can use verbal skills to defuse the situation. If those approaches fail, he said, an officer is trained to use a “soft technique” such as escorting someone by the arm.
The next level is to use a “hard technique” such as using mace or handcuffs. The top level, he said, is “deadly force.”
Frank asked Zimmerman if he had ever been trained to put his knee on someone’s neck.
“No, I haven’t,” he replied.
When asked what level of force such an action would be considered, he replied, “That would be the top tier, the deadly force.” He noted that putting your knee on someone’s neck could kill them.
As Frank continued his questioning, Zimmerman said that when any officer handcuffs someone, that person’s safety becomes the officer’s responsibility, and the situation changes drastically.
“The threat level goes down all the way,” he said. Asked to elaborate, he said, “They’re cuffed, how could they hurt you?”
While acknowledging that people could still be combative, Zimmerman said that after someone is handcuffed, officers should try to help the person calm down.
Frank then turned to the “prone position” – numerous video recordings show that Chauvin and other officers kept Floyd pinned to the asphalt after he was handcuffed, even as he pleaded with them to let him move and said he couldn’t breathe.
Zimmerman said that if someone is handcuffed in the prone position, the officer should move them “as soon as possible, because it restricts their breathing.”
Saying he has been handcuffed behind his back as part of his training, Zimmerman said the process stretches muscles back through the detainee’s chest, making it even harder to breathe if someone is also facedown on the ground. Options to move them, he said, include turning persons on their side, or having them sit up.
Lt. Zimmerman’s testimony
In defense attorney Eric Nelson’s follow-up questioning of Zimmerman, he emphasized that he is not regularly on patrol or in uniform. He also asked Zimmerman when he was last involved in a physical confrontation. The lieutenant said it was in 2018. Nelson then asked Zimmerman about police tactics and how they’ve evolved. He then established that Zimmerman does not train or teach officers.
Nelson also said that Zimmerman had only spent a couple of hours at the scene after Floyd had died. But Frank, the prosecutor, noted that Zimmerman had reviewed body camera footage from the scene, including recordings of bystanders.
When Frank asked the homicide lieutenant if he saw anything to make him think the crowd posed “an uncontrollable threat to the officers at the scene,” Zimmerman replied, “No.”
The crowd doesn’t matter, he said, “as long as they’re not attacking you.”
And while Frank had earlier highlighted Zimmerman’s seniority due to his joining the force in the 1980s, Nelson noted that practices have changed since then – and Frank later reiterated that Zimmerman undergoes yearly training.
Returning to the topic of the prone position during follow-up questions, Frank asked if it’s well-known as being dangerous.
“Absolutely, yes,” Zimmerman replied. He added, “That hasn’t changed” in the department’s training on the use of force.
Nelson said that another part of police officers’ responsibilities after being called to a scene is to evaluate the area and consider their own security and that of their fellow officers. Nelson asked if someone who is rendered unconscious might be more violent after regaining consciousness. And the attorney said, “In a fight for your life, you as an officer are allowed to use whatever force is reasonable and necessary.”
Zimmerman agreed with Nelson when he said such force can include improvisation.
Nelson also sought to clarify the idea of an officer putting a knee on someone’s neck. Under his questioning, Zimmerman acknowledged that his training did include the process of placing a knee on someone’s shoulder as they handcuffed them.
Zimmerman also agreed that people are sometimes held in a restrained position while awaiting an ambulance.
As for whether someone in handcuffs could still pose a threat, Zimmerman said, “I suppose they could.”
Nelson mentioned that the person could still attempt to kick an officer or thrash around. Under Frank’s follow-up questions, Zimmerman said he had seen no sign that Floyd had kicked the officers.
Circling back on Nelson’s mention of holding someone for emergency medical services, Frank asked if that process excuses officers from providing medical care in which they’ve been trained. “No, it doesn’t,” Zimmerman said.
The prosecutor then asked if Zimmerman’s review of the footage had found “any need for officer Chauvin to improvise by putting his knee on Mr. Floyd for nine minutes and 29 seconds?”
“No, I did not,” Zimmerman said.
Friday’s first witness: Sgt. Jon Edwards
The first witness called Friday morning was Minneapolis police Sgt. Jon Edwards, who has previously worked in community liaison roles. He’s now a patrol sergeant working the overnight shift in the 3rd precinct, although he is currently on leave.
Edwards was working on the night of May 25, coming on duty at 8:30 p.m. On that day, he said, he got a phone call around the start of his shift from Chauvin’s former supervisor, retired Minneapolis police Sgt. David Ploeger, who worked the preceding shift.
In Edwards’ telling, Ploeger told him he was at the hospital with a male subject who may or may not live. He said he later learned the man’s name was George Floyd.
Edwards said Ploeger asked him to report to 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis and make contact with officers there, because the scene “had the potential to be a possible critical incident” due to officer-involved violence.
Edwards arrived around 9:35 p.m., wearing his body-worn camera. Under questioning from prosecutor Steve Schleicher, Edwards said he saw then-officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng in their patrol vehicle across the street from Cup Foods. He told them to turn on their body-worn cameras and put up crime scene tape around the area where police had been working.
Edwards told Lane and Kueng to leave their belongings in their squad vehicle. Afterward, he said, a team from the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension told him they would take both the police vehicle and Floyd’s SUV into custody.
Zimmerman, from the homicide unit, arrived around 10 p.m., according to police video recordings. About an hour later, agents from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension took control of the scene, Edwards said.
The crime scene was cleared and the caution tape was removed around 3:30 a.m., according to the time stamp on the recording from Edwards’ body camera.
A week of testimony
The first week of the trial brought several days of intensely emotional testimony from eyewitnesses who watched police pin Floyd to the asphalt and heard his final words as he pleaded with the officers to get off him.
More than a dozen witnesses have already testified this week, and Friday’s court session was cut short as lunchtime approached. Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill said on Thursday that because of the fairly rapid progress in moving through the prosecution’s witness list, the jury would be released early on Friday.
On Thursday, Ploeger told the jury about the phone call he made to Chauvin about the struggle with Floyd. Ploeger was alerted to the situation by 911 dispatcher Jena Scurry, who testified Monday that she became alarmed as she watched live video footage of the arrest.
“When Mr. Floyd was no longer offering up any resistance to the officers, they could have ended the restraint,” Ploeger said. If an officer puts his knee on someone’s neck, he said, that position should only be held until the subject is handcuffed and not resisting any longer.
Also on Thursday, two paramedics who were called to the scene outside Cup Foods described how Floyd was unresponsive when they arrived and “limp” as they placed him on a gurney. Their ambulance’s cardiac monitor showed he had “flat-lined,” Hennepin County paramedic Seth Bravinder said.
The Hennepin County medical examiner’s office ruled Floyd’s death was a homicide, saying his heart and lungs stopped functioning “while being restrained” by police. But it also noted “other significant conditions,” including fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use as well as heart disease.
Prosecutors say Chauvin was directly responsible for Floyd’s death. But the officer’s defense attorney disagrees, saying Floyd was overdosing on fentanyl when he died.
Chauvin, 45, is facing three criminal charges, as listed in court documents:
- second-degree murder — unintentional — while committing a felony;
- third-degree murder — perpetrating eminently dangerous act and evincing depraved mind;
- second-degree manslaughter — culpable negligence creating unreasonable risk.