It wasn't easy to tell from the swirl of discussion whether the tactic Derek Chauvin used against George Floyd was a sanctioned use of force under Minneapolis police procedures. The early word from people like Mayor Jacob Frey and police spokesman John Elder was no. And perhaps by that they meant the length of time Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd's neck, or the fact that Floyd was already handcuffed, or the fact that he died.
Yet there it was in the Police Department's Policy and Procedure Manual, section 5-311, "Use of neck restraints and choke holds," with dates of last prior revision:
Neck Restraint: Non-deadly force option. Defined as compressing one or both sides of a person's neck with an arm or leg, without applying direct pressure to the trachea or airway (front of the neck). Only sworn employees who have received training from the MPD Training Unit are authorized to use neck restraints. The MPD authorizes two types of neck restraints: Conscious Neck Restraint and Unconscious Neck Restraint. (04/16/12)
Conscious Neck Restraint: The subject is placed in a neck restraint with intent to control, and not to render the subject unconscious, by only applying light to moderate pressure. (04/16/12)
Unconscious Neck Restraint: The subject is placed in a neck restraint with the intention of rendering the person unconscious by applying adequate pressure. (04/16/12)
Consider that gone. Under an agreement approved unanimously by the City Council on Friday, officers would be forbidden from using both neck restraints and chokeholds. They also would be required to intervene when inappropriate force is used. The moves are part of a preliminary injunction in the lawsuit filed against the Minneapolis Police Department last week by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.
It was clearly necessary to abolish the tactics. Last week NBC News, citing the MPD's use-of-force records, reported that officers in the city had used neck restraints 237 times since 2015, and in 44 of those instances — 16% of the time — had rendered people unconscious. Since Floyd's death, law enforcement experts have widely denounced the technique as inherently dangerous, although that is not new knowledge. Merely leaving someone handcuffed and facedown for too long, let alone with added pressure, poses risks.
NBC's data was supported by a separate comment to the Star Tribune by Mary Moriarty, chief public defender in Hennepin County. "We look at bodycam, we look at dashcam," she said, "and we frequently see officers put their knees in a client's back or neck."
But Chauvin and the three officers on the scene with him were fired and face various charges ranging from second-degree murder (for Chauvin) to aiding and abetting murder (for the others). The policy that will apply to their cases is that which was in force when they encountered Floyd. So what was it — beyond the painfully obvious — that was not in keeping with established practice in the city?
Here again, the manual offers hints. It said the "unconscious neck restraint" shall be applied only on a subject who is exhibiting active aggression, or for lifesaving purposes, or on a subject "who is exhibiting active resistance in order to gain control of the subject; and if lesser attempts at control have been or would likely be ineffective."
It added, in the sweetly named "After Care Guidelines," that "after a neck restraint or choke hold has been used on a subject, sworn MPD employees shall keep them under close observation until they are released to medical or other law enforcement personnel."
Tragic results notwithstanding, the MPD has made an effort to improve its use-of-force policy in recent years, emphasizing de-escalation and the "sanctity of life." And it deserves credit for keeping use-of-force records — the NBC report noted that a lack of such data from other departments made it impossible to compare police use of neck-restraint tactics by city.
The City Council is beginning to discuss ambitious changes in how public safety is maintained. Its passion is both inspiring and a bit fearsome. Careful scrutiny is warranted for many of the ideas floated in recent days, but the agreement advanced on Friday is a solid first step.