“Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.”
That was the headline of a Minneapolis Police press release on May 25, 2020, in the hours after an unnamed man in his 40s died. Absent from the nearly 200-word post is any mention of officers restraining him on the ground, a knee on his neck, or any sense of how long this “interaction” lasted.
Thanks to video from a 17-year-old bystander, we now know what really happened: Former police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by using excessive and unreasonable force when he kneeled on Floyd’s neck and back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Chauvin was convicted Tuesday on two counts of murder and a count of manslaughter in a Minnesota criminal court.
In light of his conviction, that original press release is worth revisiting to understand the ways that police statements can hide the truth with a mix of passive language, blatant omissions and mangled sense of timing.
The link to the post now redirects to the Minneapolis Police website, but its text remains accessible through the Internet Archive.
The post begins by saying that Minneapolis Police officers responded to a report of a “forgery in progress,” and notes that the suspect “appeared to be under the influence.”
“Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.
“At no time were weapons of any type used by anyone involved in this incident. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has been called in to investigate this incident at the request of the Minneapolis Police Department.
“No officers were injured in the incident. Body worn cameras were on and activated during this incident.”
The post was sent by John Elder, the director of the Office of Public Information under Minneapolis Police.
How police language obscured the truth
Everything in the police post is, technically speaking, true.
The police were responding to report of a man using a suspected counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd was under the influence of fentanyl and methamphetamine at the time, according to a toxicology report. He did physically resist officers when they tried to get him into the squad car. They were able to get him into handcuffs.
The officers did notice he appeared to be in medical distress, and they did call for an ambulance. No weapons were “used,” at least in the sense that they did not shoot him or beat him with a weapon.
But taken together, the post is deeply misleading and works to obscure the officers’ role in his death.
It flips the timing of the handcuffing, hiding the fact that Floyd was in handcuffs nearly from the start of their interaction.
It notes that he was put in handcuffs and “suffering medical distress” in the same sentence, even though they occurred about 20 minutes apart. Most importantly, it ignores what police did in between those two events.
There is no mention that police restrained him in a prone position on the ground or that Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck. It does not mention that Chauvin remained in that position for an extended period – 9 minutes and 29 seconds. It does not mention that Floyd repeatedly said “I can’t breathe” and called for his “mama” before he lost consciousness, stopped breathing and lost his pulse. It does not state that Chauvin stayed on his neck until paramedics motioned for him to get up off Floyd’s limp body.
It also does not mention that former officer Thomas Lane pointed his gun at Floyd while he was in his vehicle, which can be interpreted as “using” a weapon.
We know the truth of all of this because of a remarkable amount of video showing what really happened that day.
The 17-year-old, Darnella Frazier, posted her video to Facebook, which was seen by people across the world, including the Minneapolis Police chief. Genevieve Hansen, an off-duty firefighter who was rebuffed from rendering aid to Floyd, also filmed parts of the scene from a slightly different angle. Another high school student used her friend’s phone to film the incident, she testified.
A city surveillance camera from across the street showed the restraint of Floyd from a distance. A 911 dispatcher who watched the live feed of that video called her supervisor to voice her concerns about what she had seen. Other videos from inside the Cup Foods store, outside a Chinese restaurant and from a bystander in his car showed what happened prior to the fatal restraint.
Finally, three of the officers’ body cameras showed their extended interactions with Floyd up close. Chauvin’s camera fell underneath the squad car prior to the restraint so does not show everything, but it reveals his arrival to the scene and his attempt to defend his actions afterward.
What police did after seeing bystander video
Upon first learning a man had been hospitalized while in police custody, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo alerted the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and called the mayor, he testified in Chauvin’s trial. He then watched video of the arrest from a city camera across the street, but nothing jumped out about it, he testified.
Around midnight, a communications member contacted him to show him Frazier’s bystander video, giving the chief an up-close view of the incident, he testified.
The Minneapolis Police Department fired all four officers involved the next day.
On May 26, as Frazier’s video went viral and sparked widespread outrage, the Minneapolis Police press release was updated with another vague line: “As additional information has been made available, it has been determined that the Federal Bureau of Investigations (sic) will be a part of this investigation.”
Chauvin was arrested and charged with murder on May 29, and the three other officers were arrested and charged with aiding and abetting on June 3. They have pleaded not guilty and are expected to stand trial this summer.
Elder, the police spokesman who sent out the alert, told the Los Angeles Times last year that he based the initial release on information from sergeants who work in the area and computer-aided dispatch, which did not mention the use of force. He hadn’t reviewed the body-camera footage yet.
“This had literally zero intent to deceive or be dishonest or disingenuous. Had we known that this (situation) was what we saw on the video, that statement would have been completely different,” Elder told the LA Times.
In response, the Minneapolis City Council voted last summer to move the Public Information Office out from the police department and under the city’s control, according to CNN affiliate WCCO.
On Wednesday, George Floyd’s brother Philonise Floyd said it was the presence of cameras that opened doors for the “historic” verdict in the Chauvin trial.
“To me, Emmett Till, he was the first George Floyd,” referring to the 14-year-old Black boy who was tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955. “It just wasn’t any cameras around. That’s the only thing that changed — the cameras, the technology. It helped open up doors because without that, my brother just would have been another person on the side of the road left to die.”
CNN’s Aditi Sangal contributed to this report.