Nation's police widely condemn move used to restrain George Floyd

"The police officer and those who were there that day failed George Floyd," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
A protester holds a sign with an image of George Floyd during protests on May 27, 2020, in Minneapolis.
A protester holds a sign with an image of George Floyd during protests on May 27, 2020, in Minneapolis.Christine T. Nguyen / Minnesota Public Radio via AP

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By Pete Williams and Kit Ramgopal

Most of the nation's police departments have long cautioned their officers against putting pressure on the back or neck of someone lying face down during an arrest, as Minneapolis officers did to George Floyd.

There's widespread agreement in law enforcement that putting a knee on someone's neck — the move fired police Officer Derek Chauvin used to restrain Floyd — is especially dangerous.

"There hasn't been one person, one police chief, anyone I've talked to, who doesn't see this exactly the same way. The police officer and those who were there that day failed George Floyd," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement-oriented think tank based in Washington. "Every police officer that looked at that video who knows anything about tactics shook their head."

For more on this story, tune in to NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt tonight at 6:30pm ET/5:30pm CT or check your local listings.

Chauvin was arrested Friday and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

The fatal encounter took place Monday after a grocery store clerk called police and reported that Floyd had tried to pay with a counterfeit $20 bill. Cellphone video captured Floyd, lying facedown with his wrists handcuffed behind him, as Chauvin knelt on his neck for several minutes.

The criminal complaint says Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and “police are trained that this type of restraint with a subject in a prone position is inherently dangerous.”

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner found “no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation." It ruled that “the combined effects of Mr. Floyd being restrained by the police, his underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to his death.”

About half a million times a year, according to some studies, police restrain subjects they arrest by putting them face down in handcuffs. But many departments now discourage or even ban putting pressure to the back or neck in that position.

A Justice Department bulletin issued in 1995 warned that the technique can cause sudden death. "A person lying on his stomach has trouble breathing when pressure is applied to his back," it said. The advice: "As soon as the person is handcuffed, get him off his stomach."

Baltimore and the state of Maryland paid $1 million three years ago to settle a lawsuit brought by relatives of Tyrone West, who died after police suspected drugs during a traffic stop, laid him on the ground face down and sat on him. An independent autopsy said he suffocated.

Minneapolis paid $3 million in 2013 to settle the case of David Smith, who died after police pinned him face down with an officer's knee on his back.

The family's lawyer, Robert Bennett, called that tactic a “killing mechanism.” "It's really no different than strangling somebody,” he told NBC's KARE 11 in Minnesota.

As for what happened to George Floyd, Wexler said the lack of action by other police officers on the scene is especially discouraging. "It's so disappointing that you have these other officers who are standing around and not intervening,” he said.

Several police chiefs have spoken out against the conduct of Chauvin and the other officers involved in the fatal encounter with Floyd.

“There is no need to see more video,” David Roddy, the police chief in Chattanooga, Tennessee, tweeted Wednesday. “There is no need to wait to see how ‘it plays out.’ There is no need to put a knee on someone’s neck for NINE minutes. There IS a need to DO something. If you wear a badge and you don’t have an issue with this … turn it in.”

“What we saw in Minnesota was deeply disturbing. It was wrong,” NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said in a tweet. “We must take a stand and address it. We must come together, condemn these actions and reinforce who we are as members of the NYPD. This is not acceptable ANYWHERE.”

Detroit Police Chief James Craig put it even more bluntly.

"Probable cause clearly existed that that officer, that cowardly officer, committed murder,” Craig said on NBC News’ "Meet the Press" on Wednesday. “Arrest him. Arrest him now.”