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‘Nothing short of murder’: After officers allegedly suffocate a suspect, condemnation grows

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/29/2020 Kim Bellware, Hannah Knowles, Tom Jackman, Annie Gowen

Slideshow by photo services

Condemnation rained down Thursday on the four Minneapolis police officers involved in the death of George Floyd this week, as local officials, police organizations and President Trump denounced the incident as a tragic and unacceptable case of police brutality.

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Trump vowed a federal investigation of the incident, which rose to national attention after a bystander’s video showing then-officer Derek Chauvin holding Floyd in a prolonged and illegal hold, his knee on the black man’s neck, as a crowd of onlookers begs for Floyd’s life and he gasps: “I can’t breathe.”

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham on Thursday said the officers’ actions were “nothing short of murder” — echoing law enforcement leaders nationwide who were unusually quick to denounce the use of force and side with activists who called it an outrageous abuse of power.

Minneapolis has been mauled by violence since Floyd’s death, with stores and restaurants looted and burned. Local leaders anticipated another chaotic night Thursday as the unrest spread to neighboring St. Paul, and the region’s main public transportation operator suspended bus and light-rail services and stores locked their doors early over safety concerns. Thousands of protesters in masks flooded streets in both cities Thursday evening, while others smashed windows and ran out of businesses with stolen items. Gov. Tim Walz (D) called out the National Guard as the region braced for another night of turmoil.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (D) has called for peace and joined the chorus of protesters who say that Chauvin and three other police officers involved — who were quickly fired — should be charged with murder.

But Hennepin County prosecutor Mike Freeman triggered uproar at a Thursday afternoon news conference when he said “there is other evidence that does not support a criminal charge” against the involved officers. His office later issued a clarification, saying Freeman only meant “it is critical to review all the evidence.”

Speaking from the Oval Office on Thursday with Attorney General William P. Barr standing at his side, President Trump — who in 2017 told officers “Please don’t be too nice” to suspects — called the moments before Floyd’s death “a very bad thing.” He said the FBI will “take a very strong look” at the case, but declined to issue an opinion on whether the officers involved should be prosecuted.

In a joint statement, the Justice Department and FBI said the “robust criminal investigation” will be “a top priority.”

Attempts to reach Chauvin and his attorney, Tom Kelly, on Thursday were unsuccessful. Bob Kroll, the Minneapolis police union president, who has been a vocal defender of officers accused of excessive force in the past, has not responded to multiple messages seeking comment.

Floyd’s younger brother, Philonise Floyd, choked back tears in a CNN interview on Thursday as he described watching his brother plead for his life and the violent unrest that has followed. Floyd said the family wants peace in the streets — and the harshest possible punishment for the Minneapolis police officers involved in George Floyd’s last moments alive.

“I want everybody to be peaceful right now, but people are torn and hurt because they’re tired of seeing black men die constantly, over and over again,” Philonise Floyd said. He said justice for the family would be to see the four officers “arrested, convicted of murder and given the death penalty.”

Floyd’s family will seek an independent autopsy of his body, citing its mistrust of Minneapolis city officials, attorney Ben Crump said Thursday morning on CNN’s “New Day.”

Video by Reuters

“His family wants his body back to give him a proper funeral and also have an independent autopsy because they do not trust the city of Minneapolis after they witnessed their brother, on the ground, begging, pleading for his breath,” Crump said.

Minnesota has been the locale of several high-profile killings by police in recent years, including the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in 2016. The officer involved was charged with manslaughter and acquitted.

Often, law enforcement officials call for patience and a complete investigation — which can take weeks or months — in the immediate aftermath of a high-profile police killing. But not this time.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo moved quickly to fire the four officers involved, and top law enforcement executives applauded his actions.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, the president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, calling the video “difficult to watch and shocking to the conscience.”

“The death of George Floyd must serve as a national call for action,” he said.

Two of the most influential police organizations, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Major Cities Chiefs Association, issued statements denouncing the officers’ actions. Even the National Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the world, which usually calls for deliberate consideration after an explosive police-related incident, weighed in against the killing of Floyd.

“The fact that he was a suspect in custody is immaterial,” FOP President Patrick Yoes said. “Police officers should at all times render aid to those who need it. Police officers need to treat all of our citizens with respect and understanding and should be held to the very highest standards for their conduct.”

Yoes also said that “the officers are reportedly cooperating with investigators and we must ensure that justice is served, whatever the consequences.”

The video of Floyd’s death drew such universal condemnation because “it’s just so blatantly clear,” said Janeé Harteau, a former Minneapolis police chief.

“It’s the most horrific thing I’ve seen in my career and in my lifetime,” said Harteau, who was ousted from her job in 2017 amid the outrage over another officer-involved shooting.

In a Thursday interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said that his panel may hold a hearing on the issue of police violence in the wake of Floyd’s death to assess “why does this happen, how often is it, is it an aberration.”

Addressing the Floyd case in particular, Graham said that “what you see on television, in my view, is just a man dying for no good reason. ... It’s hard to watch, and I just imagine how many people died without videos.”

Graham also said he supports Trump’s move to have the federal government look into the incident.

“I have a lot of respect for the cops. But when you get a bad cop and you don’t come down hard, you erode trust,” he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) addressed the Floyd case in opening remarks at her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, saying he had been “murdered on TV.”

“To watch Mr. Floyd be murdered in a video at a time when we’re all so sad to begin with — it’s always tragic,” she said.

In Minneapolis, Arradondo fielded questions about what some officials called an insufficient police response to Wednesday’s destruction. He acknowledged a “dynamic shift” in the tenor of protests and said the events of Wednesday appeared to include “a different group of individuals” than the night before, when protests remained peaceful.

“There was a core group of people that had been really focused on causing destruction,” he said of the looting and fires. “It was clear to me that many of the people involved in the criminal conduct last night were not known Minneapolitans.”

The acts of arson were unexpected, Arradondo said, and the decision to let some buildings burn came down to a “matter of resources.” Protesters threw rocks and bottles at responding firefighters at several arson sites, and Arradondo said the fire chief was concerned about their safety.

City officials said they will designate a “healing space” near the Third Precinct for the community to gather and grieve.

As looting and violent clashes with police began in St. Paul on Thursday, the mayor of the state capital begged people to stay home and not protest amid outrage over the death of Floyd.

“Please keep the focus on George Floyd, on advancing our movement, and on preventing this from ever happening again. We can all be in that fight together,” Mayor Melvin Carter (D) tweeted Thursday afternoon, as St. Paul police said they were trying to disperse groups damaging property and attempting to steal merchandise on multiple blocks.

“The situation in our city right now is heartbreaking & rapidly devolving,” he continued. “I’m angry/ sad as anyone & pushing for the officers who killed George Floyd to be arrested ASAP.”

Local news outlets reported that various stores in the area had preemptively closed out of fear of further looting. Police in Maplewood urged people to “avoid retail areas until further notice,” citing “the potential for flash looting.”

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Protesters face off with police outside the Minneapolis Third Precinct as a third day of protests continues over the arrest of George Floyd, who later died in police custody. © Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Protesters face off with police outside the Minneapolis Third Precinct as a third day of protests continues over the arrest of George Floyd, who later died in police custody.

Dozens had stormed a Target in neighboring St. Paul on Thursday and grabbed items they did not pay for, police said.

St. Paul City Council member Mitra Jalali, who went out to University Avenue amid the unrest, called the situation “volatile” and “not good.” She emphasized that she wants to see police working “to de-escalate whenever and however possible.”

“People out here are hurt and angry and frustrated,” she said. “This isn’t happening for no reason. We have seen folks that are just really, really hurt from years and years of overlapping causes and conditions,” she added, denouncing “structural racism” that existed before Floyd’s death Monday.

Some of the most high-profile fatal shootings by police in the past decade have gripped Minneapolis and the larger Twin Cities region and long fostered distrust of law enforcement in that African American community.

Besides the killings of Floyd and Castile, a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man, in 2015, spurring extended demonstrations that effectively occupied the area near the department’s Fourth Precinct for weeks. Local and federal officials eventually declined to charge the officers involved.

In 2017, a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed Justine Damond, an Australian woman who had called police about what she believed was a possible sexual assault near her home. Mohamed Noor, the officer involved, shot Damond through an open window when she approached the police car and was convicted of murder last year, becoming one of the relatively few officers sentenced for killing someone on duty.

Sheila Regan in Minneapolis; Holly Bailey and Tarkor Zehn in St. Paul; and Brittany Shammas, Seung Min Kim, Dan Lamothe, Matt Zapotosky, Mark Berman, Colby Itkowitz, Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.

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