Attorneys for the family of George Floyd sued the city of Minneapolis and the four officers involved in his death Wednesday, vowing to send a message that the police training and practices that target Black people and led to his killing must no longer be tolerated in the United States.
“This is a teachable moment for America,” said attorney Ben Crump, standing outside the U.S. Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis.
While not specifying how much the family will seek in compensation, Crump said, “This is an unprecedented case, and with this lawsuit we seek to set a precedent that makes it financially prohibitive for police to wrongfully kill marginalized people — especially Black people — in the future.”
Crump said that how the city leaders react to the demands put forth by the Floyd family lawyers will have consequences. “Their political legacy will be defined by how they respond,” he said.
City Attorney Erik Nilsson said in a statement that “George Floyd’s death is a tragedy. The city is reviewing the lawsuit filed by his family and will be responding to it. Criminal charges are pending against four Minneapolis police officers, and it’s very important that the criminal case proceed without interference.”
A spokesman for the Police Officers’ Federation of Minneapolis said the union is declining to comment about the suit.
Floyd died May 25 after officer Derek Chauvin pinned his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly 8 minutes as Floyd, who was handcuffed, cried out that he couldn’t breathe and bystanders pleaded with Chauvin to stop.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. Three other officers at the scene — Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng — are charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and manslaughter. All have been fired.
The federal suit accuses the officers of a “reckless disregard” for Floyd’s civil rights.
“This complaint shows what we have said all along, that Mr. Floyd died because the weight of the entire Minneapolis Police Department was on his neck,” Crump said in a statement. “The city of Minneapolis has a history of policies, procedures and deliberate indifference that violates the rights of arrestees, particularly Black men, and highlights the need for officer training and discipline.”
The suit contends that the officers used deadly force in non-deadly circumstances.
It also alleges that the department engaged in a culture of “warrior-style” or “killology” training, failed to terminate dangerous officers and fostered a culture of racism, leading to a violation of Floyd’s civil rights.
In April 2019, Mayor Jacob Frey announced he was banning officers from receiving “fear-based” training. In defiance of the mayor, the police union quickly countered that it was partnering with a national police organization to offer free “warrior-style” training.
On Tuesday, the Police Department said it is changing its use-of-force policy to encourage officers to de-escalate tense situations and hold them accountable when force or weapons are used. Officers will now be required to document how they tried to de-escalate situations, why they decided to use force and why they chose a specific level of force.
The suit lists other litigation over allegations of police brutality by Minneapolis officers, and cites the 2010 death of David Smith, who was killed by two Minneapolis police officers at the downtown YMCA when they subdued him by placing a knee on his back for more than 4 minutes. That death was ruled a homicide by the Medical Examiner’s Office, and his family settled the case for $3 million. Jeff Storms, one of the Minneapolis attorneys in that case, is now one of the lawyers representing the Floyd family.
“The Floyd family deserves justice for the inhumane way in which officers with the Minneapolis Police Department killed Mr. Floyd,” said attorney L. Chris Stewart, who is also working on the case. “The city has a responsibility to acknowledge the history and practices of excessive force and impunity with its police force, as well as shortfalls in officer training and discipline.”
Said Stewart: “He was literally tortured to death.”
‘Turn a blind eye’
The 40-page lawsuit recounts how officers Lane and Kueng were dispatched to Cup Foods at 38th and Chicago at 8 p.m. on May 25 in response to a call that Floyd had engaged in potential fraud, “a nonviolent offense,” for allegedly trying to pass a phony $20 bill.
The suit say Floyd was unarmed and did not resist, yet was handcuffed. Chauvin and Kueng arrived and after Floyd said he was claustrophobic when they tried to put him in a squad car, Lane suggested that the other officers put him in a “maximal restraint technique,” placing him face down on the street with the left side of his face pressed against the pavement.
Lane and Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back and legs and twisted his arms to the side of his body while “Chauvin drove his left knee in the back of Mr. Floyd’s neck.”
Floyd begged the officers to stop, saying, “Tell my kids I love them. I’m dead,” and repeatedly groaning, “I can’t breathe,” the suit said. The officers held him in the position even as onlookers said Floyd was bleeding from the nose and begged the officers to get off him.
Lane suggested to the other officers that Floyd be rolled onto his side, stating, “I am worried about excited delirium or whatever.” Chauvin responded, “That’s why we have him on his stomach,” which the suit alleges was contrary to national law enforcement best practices. “No officer attempted to move from Mr. Floyd’s body or roll him onto his side,” the suit says.
When an onlooker approached officer Thao and urged him to check Floyd’s pulse, Thao responded, “Don’t do drugs, guys.”
The suit said that when another onlooker identified as a health care professional with the city’s health department asked officers to check Floyd’s pulse, Thao told her to “get on the sidewalk.”
The suit alleges that the Minneapolis Police Department trained officers that a “neck restraint” was an authorized form of non-deadly force and that a “chokehold” was a form of deadly force capable of causing serious bodily injury and/or death. The department trained officers that a proper neck restraint required the officer to “[c]ompress veins, arteries, nerves & muscles of the neck,” although adding that serious bodily injury or death can result, the suit said.
The suit also says that since 2012, neck restraints and holds were used by Minneapolis police officers on 428 people, 14% of whom lost consciousness. Training materials offered to officers in 2014, including Chauvin and Thao, depict an officer placing a knee on the neck of an arrestee who is handcuffed in a prone position, the suit said.
It said the department failed to provide officers with proper policy guidance and training on how to observe and attend to the medical needs of arrestees subjected to neck restraints.
The suit contends that it has long been known that people placed in a prone position should be on their side as soon as they are secure, but “as of 2012, officers were not provided official training on the dangers of positional or mechanical asphyxia associated with prone restraint” despite the “well-known risk of death.”
The suit singles out police union President Bob Kroll, who it alleges had a “white power” logo on a jacket, encouraged officers to “behave aggressively” and has high influence in the department yet has not been disciplined or fired. Kroll has previously denied that he wore such a logo. The suit also said that Chauvin and Thao had enough complaints on their record that they should have been fired before Floyd’s death.
The suit also said the department “tolerated, permitted, failed to correct, promoted or ratified a number of customs, patterns or practices that condoned and required officers to turn a blind eye to and not intervene with the use of excessive force by MPD officers.”
Similar suits rarely go to trial
Suits against police officers over wrongful death rarely go to trial in Minnesota as city officials worry that a jury could award even more money than a settlement. Payouts involving police encounters have varied widely in recent years in Minneapolis and a nearby suburb; some have been huge.
In 2019, the excessive-force lawsuit by the family of the Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who was white, was settled for $20 million, the largest in the city’s history. An unarmed Damond was shot in the alley behind her southwest Minneapolis home by the now-imprisoned officer, Mohamed Noor.
Also last year, the family of Jamar Clark, a young Black man who was fatally shot by Minneapolis police in 2015, reached a $200,000 settlement with the city. It came months after the City Council rejected a previous offer as too low.
The mother of Philando Castile, a Black motorist killed by a St. Anthony police officer in 2016, has reached a nearly $3 million settlement with the city that employed the former officer, Jeronimo Yanez, who was acquitted of manslaughter.