A teenager who was pinned under Derek Chauvin's knee three years before George Floyd's murder filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Tuesday, saying in an interview that the Minneapolis Police Department should have fired or disciplined the ex-officer for that 2017 arrest.
"George Floyd would be standing here today," John Pope said last week.
In a federal lawsuit seeking unspecified damages, Pope and his attorney, Bob Bennett, say Chauvin and six other officers violated his constitutional right to be free from excessive force. The lawsuit says a culture of racism and violence permeated the MPD for decades and that rather than discipline Chauvin for his treatment of Pope, the officer was "left free to prowl for more Black persons to subjugate and torture."
Pope's was one of two federal lawsuits filed against Chauvin and the city by Bennett on Tuesday that accused the ex-officer of using the same dangerous restraint. The teenager's lawsuit calls Chauvin a "serial predator" with a "signature move" of placing his knee on the neck of prone, handcuffed arrestees.
Bennett's second lawsuit was filed on behalf of Zoya Code. The 39-year-old mother of five said in an interview that Chauvin's acts traumatized her since he kneeled on her neck in 2017.
"I didn't know his name. All I knew was he was a police officer with Minneapolis Police Department," she said. "I didn't know what precinct he was at. All I knew was his face. [Chauvin] haunted me until I seen him on top of George."
In a statement, Minneapolis City Attorney Peter Ginder called the accounts of Pope and Code "disturbing."
"We intend to move forward in negotiations with the Plaintiffs on these two matters and hope we can reach a reasonable settlement," Ginder said. "If a settlement cannot be reached on one or both lawsuits, the disputes will have to be resolved through the normal course of litigation."
Pope, a 19-year-old, soft-spoken bank supervisor and college student studying criminal justice, spoke last week from Bennett's downtown office about the encounter with Chauvin that occurred in September 2017 when Pope was 14. It wasn't until after Floyd's death in May 2020 that he learned from a reporter that Chauvin was the same man who had restrained him.
"It sparked the national outcry," Pope said of Floyd's murder, his first interview since his encounter with Chauvin. "I guess people was tired of it and they took it into their own hands. But it shouldn't take that. It's just like if anybody else goes to work and they make a mistake, they're held accountable. It should go the same way for police. If they make a mistake on their job, they need to be held accountable."
Recalling the 2017 event, Pope said he was alone in his bedroom on the floor using his cellphone when officers came into his room and told him to stand up because he was under arrest. Pope said he asked why, but the first officer didn't respond and then another officer hit him on the head with a flashlight and choked him until he passed out. Pope remembers waking up with a knee on the back of his neck.
"And then I asked him to move it to my lower back," Pope recalled of the knee, saying he thought that would help him breathe.
The officer, later determined to be Chauvin, responded, "Are you going to flounce around?" before moving his knee, Pope said.
The lawsuit, written with the benefit of the body-worn camera footage seen by Pope's attorneys, is more detailed.
Chauvin was acting that night as a field-training officer for officer Alexander Walls when the two responded to a domestic assault call at 8:45 p.m. to Pope's home on the 5700 block of Chicago Avenue S. Pope was there with his sister and his mother, Deanna Jenkins.
Upon arrival, the officers called in a "Code 4," meaning the situation was under control and no assistance was needed. But Jenkins, who was obviously drunk, the lawsuit said, told Chauvin and Walls she wanted Pope and his sister arrested for using electricity to charge their phones.
She claimed Pope had grabbed her from behind, and with Chauvin watching, she filled out domestic assault paperwork. The officers then went to talk to Pope in his bedroom, according to the lawsuit.
In Pope's recollection, when the officers walked into his bedroom and told him to get up because he was under arrest, he had questions. "And I asked him why. 'Can we talk first and get my side?' And I guess he wasn't listening to that point and decided to go about it a different way," Pope said.
The lawsuit said Chauvin held him down for 15 minutes while Pope was "completely subdued and not resisting," but crying out that he couldn't breathe. Citing body-camera footage, the lawsuit said Jenkins asked Chauvin eight times to get off of Pope.
At least eight officers, including Walls and five others named in the lawsuit, saw Chauvin kneeling on an unmoving Pope but did nothing to stop the restraint. Chauvin was still on Pope when paramedics showed up, the lawsuit said.
Pope was taken to the hospital for stitches and then the Juvenile Justice Center where he was charged with fifth-degree domestic assault, a misdemeanor, and obstructing the legal process, a gross misdemeanor, but the charges were quickly dropped.
Chauvin already has pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing for federal criminal charges of violating the civil rights of both Pope and Floyd. Pope was present when Chauvin pleaded guilty and said he felt like justice came too late. Chauvin also was convicted in state court of Floyd's murder and was sentenced to more than 22 years.
The latest lawsuits fault not just Chauvin but the culture of the MPD, saying it "encourages and enables racist, predatory police officers and unconstitutional force practices."
The "kneeing maneuver" used on Pope, Code, Floyd and "likely many others" was Chauvin's "calling card" despite officers knowing it posed serious risk of injury and death from positional asphyxia, the lawsuit said.
Chauvin's treatment of Pope and Code was available to MPD supervisors because the city maintains electronic storage of all body-worn camera footage through evidence.com. "But the city buried its head in the sand regarding such evidence or even worse, reviewed it and did nothing, in either case continuing to condone such actions by officers," the lawsuit said.
To support the claim, the lawsuit also cited the recent Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) report, which found that MPD officers and supervisors receive improper training that emphasizes a paramilitary approach resulting in unnecessary escalation.
Pope's case — and the fact that no one was disciplined for it — was specifically cited in the MDHR report. "By deeming the officer's use of force appropriate, the supervisor effectively authorized the officer to continue using such egregious force in the future," the report said.
Pope said Chauvin and the officers who saw what happened to him should have been called out and disciplined for excessive force. "Because the only way that you can get better and not make that mistake is if you're held accountable for it," he said.
Former Minneapolis police officer Catherine Johnson, who was an inspector in the Third Precinct where Chauvin was headquartered, said she was never told about Chauvin's encounters with Pope and Code. Chauvin's immediate supervisors approved of his conduct during those incidents, Johnson said.
In addition to Chauvin and Walls, Pope's lawsuit names five other officers and the city as defendants. The officers are: Joshua Domek, David Nerling, Graham Plys, David Robins and Sgt. Lucas Peterson. Walls, Domek and Nerling remain with the department. Plys, Robins and Peterson all left within the past two years.
Said Pope: "I think time after time a lot of police officers forget that they're a mediator, and that they see people on their worst days, not their best, and that they're calling you to help, not to make it worse."
This story is part of a collaboration between the Star Tribune and FRONTLINE that includes the documentary, "Police on Trial," which premiered Tuesday on PBS.