Knee on subdued suspect’s neck not allowed, police trainer tells Chauvin trial

Chris McGreal
·5-min read

Watch: Chauvin used unauthorized restraint: MPD trainer

A Minneapolis police trainer who instructed Derek Chauvin in the use of force told the former officer’s murder trial on Tuesday that placing a knee on a suspect’s neck when they are already subdued “is not authorised”.

 Related: Chauvin's use of force on George Floyd was 'in no way' policy, says police chief 

Lt Johnny Mercil told the court that at the time George Floyd was arrested last May, police department policy still permitted the use of neck restraints using an arm or side of a leg when a suspect was being “assaultive”.

But he said the training did not include the use of a knee, as Chauvin used for more than nine minutes on the 46-year-old African American man in his custody.

Mercil said putting a knee to the neck is “not unauthorised” in making an arrest, but that it is not permitted if the suspect is in handcuffs or otherwise subdued. Floyd was in handcuffs for several minutes before he was forced into the prone position on the ground and Chauvin applied his knee.

Chauvin, 45, has denied charges of second- and third-degree murder, and manslaughter, over Floyd’s death, which prompted mass protests for racial justice across the US and other parts of the world. He faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge. Three other officers face charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.

Mercil, a martial arts expert specialising in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, said he trained officers that the use of force has to be reasonable when it starts and when it stops.

The prosecution is seeking to show that even if Chauvin felt that he was using a legitimate level of force when he got Floyd on the ground, keeping his knee on the detained man’s neck for more than nine minutes was not reasonable. There came a point at which it should have been lifted.

Photograph: Jane Rosenberg/Reuters
Photograph: Jane Rosenberg/Reuters

Mercil said officers are trained to use force in proportion “to level of resistance that you’re getting”. He agreed that it should be reduced as the threat from a suspect diminishes.

The prosecutor showed Mercil a picture of Chauvin restraining Floyd as he lay prone and asked if that level of force would be authorised “if the subject was under control and handcuffed”.

The police lieutenant replied: “I would say no.”

The defence attempted to get Mercil to agree that a training manual showed an officer placing his knee on the back of a neck during handcuffing. But Mercil said the picture showed the knee was on the shoulder and it was the shin across the neck. The distinction is crucial because it means the pressure point is away from where it is most dangerous.

Mercil was the latest in a succession of Chauvin’s former colleagues to give evidence for the prosecution. Earlier on Tuesday, Sgt Ker Yang, a 24-year Minneapolis police veteran who now heads training in crisis intervention, said Chauvin was instructed to recognise whether a detained individual is in crisis and needs medical assistance. He agreed that intoxication from drugs or alcohol “can be a crisis”.

Floyd’s girlfriend has testified that he was addicted to opioids and another witness said he appeared to be high shortly before his arrest.

Watch: The Death of George Floyd: Day 7 recap of Derek Chauvin's trial

Nicole Mackenzie, the police department’s medical support coordinator, testified that Chauvin was trained in dealing with drug overdoses and in giving CPR. She said officers are obliged to render immediate first aid in a critical situation and not to simply wait for an ambulance to arrive.

Mackenzie said officers are instructed in how to recognise and respond to a person who is unresponsive including taking a pulse and measures to get them breathing again.

Video of Floyd’s arrest shows one of the police officers dismissing his pleas that he can’t breathe on the grounds that it takes a lot of oxygen to talk. “Just because they’re speaking does not mean they are breathing adequately,” said Mackenzie.

One of the challenges for the prosecution is to persuade the jury that Chauvin, and not the Minneapolis police department, bears responsibility for the methods he used.

On Monday the city’s police chief, Medaria Arradondo, attempted to paint Chauvin as a rogue officer going far beyond his training and regulations in his use of force.

“To continue to apply that level of force to a person proned-out, handcuffed behind their back, that in no way, shape or form is anything that is by policy,” Arradondo told the trial.

The defence suggested Chauvin was merely following his training by the Minneapolis police. Nelson put it to Arradondo that his department’s policies did permit neck restraints under certain circumstances at the time of Chauvin’s death.

These included the “unconscious neck restraint” used to cut off the blood flow to the brain. However, that hold was only supposed to be used on people “exhibiting active aggression” or sustained resistance to arrest.

Arradondo said there had been such a policy but there was no justification for the continued pressure on Floyd’s neck after he stopped resisting.

The day began with an attempt by Morries Hall, the passenger in the vehicle with Floyd at the time of his detention, to invoke his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination and not give evidence.

Previous witnesses testified that Hall supplied drugs to Floyd. The prosecution opposed the application for Hall to be granted a blanket right not to testify on the grounds that there are relevant questions that do not risk self-incrimination. The judge asked for a list of questions that might be asked.

Three other officers involved in Floyd’s death are scheduled to be tried together later this year on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.

The trial continues.