A knee on his neck

Police were a part of George Floyd’s life from beginning to end, an experience uncommon for most Americans, except other Black men.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, right, kneels as the hearse carrying George Floyd's body arrives at North Central University for a June 4 funeral.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, right, kneels as the hearse carrying George Floyd's body arrives at North Central University for a June 4 funeral. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

HOUSTON — From the day George Floyd moved to Texas as a child to the day he was killed in Minneapolis, the police were omnipresent in his life.

They were there when Floyd and his siblings played basketball at the Cuney Homes housing project, driving their patrol cars through the makeshift courts. They were there when he walked home from school, interrogating him about the contents of his backpack. They were there when he went on late-night snack runs to the store, stopping his car and throwing him to the ground. They were there, surrounding his mother’s home, as his family prepared for their grandfather’s funeral.

They were at the bus stop, on the corner, and on his mother’s front porch. And they were in Minneapolis — 1,200 miles from where Floyd first said “Yes, officer,” to a patrolman — when he took his last breath in handcuffs.

The frequency of Floyd’s contact with police during his 46 years of life is an anomaly for most Americans, except for other Black men. While the majority of public interactions with police begin and end safely in the United States, according to 2015 survey data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, for Black Americans, those encounters are more likely to happen multiple times in a year, more likely to be initiated by police and more likely to involve the use of force.

The constant presence of police meant minor violations such as trespassing led to jail time. Drug addiction and mental health problems that Floyd suspected he suffered from resulted not in treatment or diversion programs, but in felony convictions and a lifetime of indigence.

Over time, Floyd’s convictions escalated to theft and ultimately armed robbery of a woman who was pistol-whipped by a group of men while at home with her children. Even when asserting innocence, though, Floyd and his neighbors learned to take plea deals to avoid a court system that they concluded would not give them a fair shot.

Floyd was stopped by police or charged at least 19 times in his adult life, according to records, friends, and family. In a handful of encounters, he was let go. Other times, the charges were serious and shaped the trajectory of his life.

Meanwhile, officers in the police department that funneled Floyd into the system had been given probation for homicide and civil rights violations. The Houston Police Department remained mired in accusations of corruption and racism into the 1990s, as it leaned on policing tactics that are now considered unreliable and prejudicial.

One officer, who claimed to have witnessed Floyd selling crack in 2004, is now being investigated for using false evidence in another case. Two former Houston police chiefs said they struggled to reform the department against an entrenched culture of bias and excessive force, but left feeling only moderately successful.

George Floyd in a 2013 Houston Police mug shot.
George Floyd in a 2013 Houston Police mug shot. (Houston Police Department)

Floyd’s persistent cycle through Harris County’s criminal justice system during the War on Drugs was remarkably routine for Black people like him.

“Nobody is going to look out for you,” Floyd’s siblings recall their mother, Larcenia Floyd Jones, saying as she admonished them about how to survive an interaction with police.

The rules were: Speak the King’s English. Try to comply. Don’t give White folks an opportunity to think you did something wrong.

And perhaps most critically: Respect the police.

Sports kept Floyd out of trouble during his youth, friends and relatives said. But as he aged into adulthood, that changed. His friend Travis Cains struggles to distinguish their many encounters with police during their time in Cuney Homes. But he does recall the pebbles of broken street gravel that stung his cheek when police pushed him and Floyd to the ground. He remembers the “jump-out boys,” a plainclothes Houston Police unit of the gang squad known for flying out of cars after a drug transaction and pouncing on anyone they could arrest. He recalls officers finding drugs where there had been none.

“Injustice has been happening to us all our life,” Cains said.

Houston police arrest a man during the 1978 Moody Park riot. It broke out on the first anniversary of the police slaying of Joe Campos Torres, a war veteran who was tortured and pushed into a bayou to drown.
Houston police arrest a man during the 1978 Moody Park riot. It broke out on the first anniversary of the police slaying of Joe Campos Torres, a war veteran who was tortured and pushed into a bayou to drown. (Jerry Click/Houston Chronicle)
In May 1977, protesters gather at the place where Joe Campos Torres was tortured and killed by Houston police officers.
In May 1977, protesters gather at the place where Joe Campos Torres was tortured and killed by Houston police officers. (E. Joseph Deering/Houston Chronicle)
Houston police officers at the 1978 Moody Park riot.
Houston police officers at the 1978 Moody Park riot. (Carlos Antonio Rios/Houston Chronicle)
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Houston police arrest a man during the 1978 Moody Park riot. It broke out on the first anniversary of the police slaying of Joe Campos Torres, a war veteran who was tortured and pushed into a bayou to drown. (Jerry Click/Houston Chronicle) In May 1977, protesters gather at the place where Joe Campos Torres was tortured and killed by Houston police officers. (E. Joseph Deering/Houston Chronicle) Houston police officers at the 1978 Moody Park riot. (Carlos Antonio Rios/Houston Chronicle)

Show-ups and throw-downs

The year Floyd’s family moved to Houston in 1977, city police officers faced murder charges in the slaying of a Mexican American war veteran who was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct at a bar, then tortured and pushed into a bayou to drown. A judge sentenced the offending officers to probation and issued a $1 fine for negligent homicide in the killing of Joe Campos Torres. Protesters chanted, “A Chicano’s life is only worth a dollar!”

Tensions exploded on the first anniversary of Campos Torres’s arrest at Moody Park, when officers arrived to break up a fight during a Cinco de Mayo celebration. The crowd retaliated, invoking Campos Torres’s name. People ransacked stores, torched police cars and threw rocks at officers in bloody bedlam.

Months later, police fatally shot a White teenager who allegedly stole a van and were convicted of planting a gun to justify the killing as self-defense. The officers were sentenced to probation, infuriating the teen’s family and reigniting calls for reform. The “throw-down,” or the practice of planting a gun or drugs at a scene, came into popular parlance when talking about Houston Police misconduct.

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By 1982, when future police chief C.O. Bradford was a young officer, the department’s reputation had been corroded by allegations of corruption and racism. During one of Bradford’s training classes that year, a White officer burst through the lecture room doors to announce that the mayor had brought in an “n-word” police chief from Atlanta. Chief Lee P. Brown was appointed as the first Black man to lead the Houston Police — a development that so divided the Black and White officers in Bradford’s class that the instructor ended class early.

Brown came in to shift the policing paradigm through a neighborhood-oriented model that put officers in precincts inside communities, including Third Ward. Floyd’s neighborhood was an easy target for “bean-counting officers,” said Bradford. Federal grants provided perverse incentives for locking up people, doling out overtime money based on the number of arrests, tickets and calls.

“You had a lot of crack in Houston and officers that needed hours or numbers,” said Bradford, who is Black. “They would swoop through the neighborhood and make these low-hanging fruit arrests to keep numbers up. They picked up the same person over and over again.”

Former Houston police chief Charles McClelland Jr.  As a rookie officer, he patrolled Third Ward; later he tried to reform the department.
Former Houston police chief Charles McClelland Jr. As a rookie officer, he patrolled Third Ward; later he tried to reform the department. (Michael Starghill Jr. for The Washington Post)

Charles McClelland Jr., who patrolled Third Ward as a rookie officer and later became police chief, said the attitude among the rank-and-file was “we’re going to do whatever is necessary to stamp out crime, suppress crime in pretty much any way that we saw fit as a police department. And sometimes that means using force. And sometimes that meant using extreme force.”

“There was no police-community relations,” he said.

Being an officer in Texas was like “a Black man joining the Klan” in the eyes of many, McClelland said. It made little sense to the Black residents of areas such as Cuney Homes to see a Black face in uniform when they viewed police as the state’s instrument of oppression. He remembered feeling the same way growing up in East Texas, where police enforced Jim Crow laws and kept people from voting.

On Third Ward’s streets, McClelland noticed a common reflex among his colleagues.

“They overreacted, sometimes, out of fear,” he said. “They didn’t understand Black people or minorities; they didn’t understand their culture; they didn’t grow up around Black people or minorities and they always felt a greater threat when we would engage minorities. They always had a sense that they would get hurt or killed, and I rarely felt that.”

Parts of Third Ward were simultaneously over-policed and under-policed, said Scott Henson, a Texas criminal justice reform researcher. While officers were incentivized to aggressively police low-level crimes, “if someone was shot or threatened, Black folks were not finding police at their beck and call,” said Henson, who also worked on police accountability for the ACLU of Texas and was a policy director for the Innocence Project of Texas.

Brown, tried to stop the racially disparate treatment of Houston residents, or at least curtail it, former officers said. He recruited and promoted Black and Hispanic officers, developed youth programs and brought citizens — including local ministers — into the public safety strategy.

Lee P. Brown around the time he became Houston's first Black police chief, in 1982. He pushed for neighborhood-oriented policing that put officers in precincts inside communities.
Lee P. Brown around the time he became Houston's first Black police chief, in 1982. He pushed for neighborhood-oriented policing that put officers in precincts inside communities. (Bettman Archive)

But little had changed by the time Bradford, an acolyte of Brown’s, became chief in 1996. He took a similar approach, wanting his officers to be problem-solvers who help prevent crime and not just enforce the law. He fired criminal officers, opened a victim services unit and encouraged de-escalation training.

Bradford said he had marginal success fighting an intractable police culture and accusations that he was “soft on crime.” Later, scandals at the city crime lab, internal department strife and botched police operations marred the end of his tenure.

[Who was George Floyd? Post Reports explores the experiences of the man who sparked a movement.]

A year into Bradford’s tenure as the head of Houston Police, Floyd was charged with his first drug offense.

The 23-year-old was back where he had started after a promising collegiate athletic career disintegrated, and he came home from college with nothing to show for it. He was charged with selling less than a gram of cocaine, a state jail felony. After a 10-month sentence at Lychner State Jail, Floyd returned to Cuney Homes with a couple hundred dollars in court debt and few ways to pay.

“Now he’s walking the street, he can’t get an education, he can’t get a job, he can’t get a place to live. So what is he going to do?” said longtime activist James Douglas, who leads the Houston NAACP and is a Texas Southern University law professor.

Houston police in riot gear at the 1978 Moody Park disturbance.
Houston police in riot gear at the 1978 Moody Park disturbance. (Carlos Antonio Rios/Houston Chronicle)
A recruiting sign in front of police headquarters in Houston in 1983.
A recruiting sign in front of police headquarters in Houston in 1983. (Jim Wilson/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)
Houston Police Chief Lee P. Brown with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Essex County, Mass., District Attorney Kevin M. Burke in 1988. They were in Washington for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Houston Police Chief Lee P. Brown with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Essex County, Mass., District Attorney Kevin M. Burke in 1988. They were in Washington for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. (John Duricka/AP)
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Houston police in riot gear at the 1978 Moody Park disturbance. (Carlos Antonio Rios/Houston Chronicle) A recruiting sign in front of police headquarters in Houston in 1983. (Jim Wilson/The Boston Globe/Getty Images) Houston Police Chief Lee P. Brown with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Essex County, Mass., District Attorney Kevin M. Burke in 1988. They were in Washington for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. (John Duricka/AP)

Cains, Floyd’s longtime friend, said he and Floyd were harassed regularly by police who knew they had records. One night, officers detained them during a trip to the corner store on suspicion of driving a stolen car, and threw the pint of ice cream they had bought to the ground. The officers’ suspicion was unfounded, Cains said.

Floyd was incarcerated in state jail months later, accused of holding a gun to a man’s head and demanding his keys and wallet, according to Harris County records. His court-appointed attorney fought the charges, alleging Floyd had been unlawfully arrested and identified in a “one-man show-up” in which police presented Floyd alone to the victim for identification on the spot. Show-ups are a standard tactic in police work, but studies show they can be highly suggestive.

Prosecutors ultimately reduced the charges to theft, leaving out the firearm charges. Floyd took the deal, but it would not be the last time he would serve time based on questionable eyewitness identification.

Police were operating on a belief that the more arrests they made, the safer the community would be, McClelland recalled. They believed that locking up young offenders for a long time and releasing them as older adults would push them to age out of crime.

“But we didn’t understand — and I don’t know if people in Houston Police management, at that time, understood — the long term consequences of that type of philosophy,” he said.

As a result, a generation of young Black Americans could never fully return to society.

‘A revolving door to jail’

Floyd struggled to find stable work as his life orbited around police encounters. He would spend days at a time at the jail on minor charges — trespassing or failing to identify himself to police — then make bail and plead out. Everyone in and around Cuney Homes knew it was preferable to take a plea deal and go home than to sit behind bars for any period of time. You knew in court, you’d lose.

Charged a second time with drug possession in 2002, Floyd complained to his attorney of depression and hearing voices. A clinical psychiatrist for the county concluded he was faking a mental illness. The intake and triage documents Floyd completed for county health authorities offer a rare glimpse into how he perceived himself and his life.

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The 28-year-old wrote that he was saddened by the death of his father that year, was suffering from little sleep and had had problems using drugs and alcohol. He said he struggled with being easily distracted, entering into foolish business investments and starting projects that he didn’t complete.

Describing himself, Floyd wrote, “When I talk, people listen to me. Sometimes I yell at inmates to be quite [sic]. I write to myself. I’m pretty smart. I write raps and don’t finish it.”

Floyd served another 10 months after an undercover officer alleged that he sold $10 worth of crack to a person acting on the officer’s behalf in 2004. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office is reviewing the drug conviction as part of a broader investigation into that narcotics officer, Gerald Goines, who is suspected of providing false evidence in a recent case.

“Goines picked certain people because he knew they had drug convictions or for whatever reason, they were people with prior problems,” said Bob Wicoff, chief of the post-conviction division of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, which is reviewing about 40 cases involving Goines.

Goines’s attorney, Nicole DeBorde, said they are vigorously fighting the accusations. Her client, who is also facing murder charges following a botched 2019 raid, was a longtime officer commended by his superiors, she said, and there is no reason to believe Goines targeted people or fabricated evidence: “That is inaccurate.”

In predominantly Black neighborhoods, drug defendants often took plea bargains, sometimes before lab reports returned, said Alex Bunin, chief public defender for Harris County. In some cases, the person had no drugs or none were in their system, but the pressure to take a guilty plea and get out was enormous, he said.

His office was created in 2010 to become part of a system that previously had no public defenders. Instead, felony court judges had appointed private defense attorneys paid by the court to represent low-income clients. A recent study found judges were more likely to hand cases to lawyers who had donated to their campaigns and in many cases, the clients had worse outcomes.

“There was no incentive to do a great job,” said Bunin.

The cycle of plea deals and incarceration that Floyd was in played out regularly in John Creuzot’s Dallas courtroom during the 1990s. The directives were to send every person involved in drug delivery to prison, but no one was addressing the underlying problems, said Creuzot, now a Dallas district attorney. The consequences hit him one day when he visited a predominantly Black elementary school in the Dallas area and asked an assembly of children how many of them had ever seen the inside of a jail.

“Almost every hand went up,” Creuzot said. “It was unbelievable. Many had seen the inside of a jail because they went to visit brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and cousins. And that’s when it just hit me. What are we doing?”

The judge began diverting defendants to treatment programs and pushed for the judiciary to adopt evidence-based sentencing that assesses the individual recidivism risk based on factors such as mental health, employment or substance abuse. Studies by Southern Methodist University and state government showed Creuzot’s work reduced recidivism significantly and saved the government millions in prison costs, but it won him an unpopular nickname with police: “Let-’em-go Creuzot.”

State politicians shifted toward reform with bipartisan proposals during the early 2000s to mandate the creation of drug courts, reduce penalties for certain drug offenses, overhaul bail and end the practice of prosecuting possession of trace amounts of drugs as felonies.

Many of the changes came too late for Floyd, whose name is now on a package of criminal justice reform measures that state Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D), is helping to push in the legislature.

“Things have gotten better, but it still leaves a lot to be desired when you still have police killing people,” said Thompson, who represents part of Harris County.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), left, is pushing criminal justice reform legislation bearing George Floyd's name.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), left, is pushing criminal justice reform legislation bearing George Floyd's name. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/AP)

A now-obsolete police tactic led to Floyd’s longest period of incarceration, following a violent robbery in August 2007. Aracely Henriquez was at her Houston home with her children when a man knocked on her door claiming to be from the water company. When she opened it, several men pushed her inside the home at gunpoint and pinned her on the couch.

“Where are the drugs? Where is the money?” Henriquez recalled the men screaming as they ransacked her kitchen cabinets, children’s closets and drawers. The men pistol-whipped Henriquez before realizing they had the wrong house and running out as quickly as they came in. Neighbors jotted down the license plate number of the getaway vehicle and passed it to police.

Henriquez said she could recall bits and pieces of the assailants’ faces in the chaos. The man who stood out most was the “big guy,” she said.

Three months later, Houston Police stopped that suspect vehicle and found Floyd — who stood 6 foot 6 — behind the wheel. It wasn’t his car, but he was arrested, indicted on aggravated robbery charges and faced up to 40 years in prison. Investigators brought photocopies of Floyd’s mug shot for a photo array to Henriquez to identify the man who put a gun to her abdomen.

“I don’t think I could forget that face,” she said in an interview with The Post.

In the report, police note that Henriquez “tentatively” identified Floyd in a photo array. It was her 7-year-old son — whose eyes were bathed in tears at the time of the robbery, his mother said — who positively identified Floyd by pointing him out in a spread of photos. This type of lineup no longer meets Houston Police standards, which changed to include a “double-blind” technique. Pictures are now presented by officers who are not tied to the case and don’t know the suspect, officials said, to avoid bias and steering witnesses to a particular person. The process should also be videotaped or audiotaped.

None of that happened for Floyd.

Prosecutors pushed for lengthy prison time, but there was no confession, no physical evidence and no recovered property linking Floyd to the crime. No one else was arrested, according to the court records, and Henriquez does not recall police bringing her any other suspects. From decades in prison, the plea offer went down to 12 years and ultimately, five. Floyd took the deal, although friends say he continued to insist he didn’t commit the crime. He wanted to avoid the risk that a jury would tag on more years if he went to trial, they said.

Police officers surround protesters on May 31 during demonstrations that followed George Floyd's death in police custody.
Police officers surround protesters on May 31 during demonstrations that followed George Floyd's death in police custody. (Joshua Lott For The Washington Post)

A new start and fatal end

Between Floyd’s documented arrests are the unrecorded encounters that shaped him and others in Cuney Homes. Relatives and friends recall when Floyd saw police handcuffing one of his younger brothers outside their mother’s home before a family funeral because a car parked near the home was suspected to be stolen. Floyd begged police to take him instead, and they took both of them.

Rodney Floyd remembered that as he and his brother sat in a cell, officers offered to let one of them go if they flipped a coin and it landed on tails.

It landed on tails. “All right, little brother, I guess you get to go. Let’s go,” Floyd recalled George Floyd saying. The elder brother was released hours later.

And there was the time when two White male officers asked Rodney Floyd, then 12, and a group of boys, unprompted, if they had any guns or drugs. They then advised the children to stop referring to them as “five-o” but to use “twelve” instead, “Because we’re coming straight for you guys, like 12 o’clock,” he recalled the officer saying.

To escape the cycle, some Third Ward residents fled Houston for drug treatment programs in Minnesota. Men went to the Salvation Army’s program and later Turning Point, on the advice of a local pastor.


George Floyd arrives in Minneapolis in February 2017, looking for drug treatment and a new start.
George Floyd arrives in Minneapolis in February 2017, looking for drug treatment and a new start. (Aubrey Rhodes)

Floyd followed the trek to Minneapolis in 2017. Between his recovery program, jobs as a security guard and bouncer and trying to earn his commercial driver’s license, Floyd kept busy. But he would confront the system again.

He was living at a halfway house and working at a homeless shelter when Hennepin County sheriff’s deputies stopped him while driving an uninsured vehicle. Floyd did not pay the $283 misdemeanor fine, which caused him legal troubles for the next two years, and his license was suspended. The following year, 2018, he was stopped again for traffic violations — in March, in April and in May.

Each stop meant more fines and trips to the courthouse instead of going to work or training for the commercial trucking license Floyd wanted. He was threatened with arrest for not paying what added up to more than $1,000. Floyd eventually completed community service and paid reduced fees, and the court dismissed the charges.

As his life skidded down a familiar old road, Floyd’s intermittent relationship with drugs came into clearer view during a May 2019 encounter with Minneapolis police. On body camera footage of the stop, officers say they saw Floyd pop several pills, later identified as the powerful narcotic Percocet, into his mouth and found more among his belongings.

Floyd became agitated and cried during the stop. He hyperventilated. He mumbled incessantly. The behavior mirrored his reaction to police the day he died. Floyd later told an officer, while filmed by a body camera, that he was afraid to go back to the penitentiary.

Police learned Floyd had taken about seven or eight pills and he admitted: “I’m in addiction.” Alarmed officers at the precinct called for medical help.

As he sat alone waiting, Floyd babbled to himself: “I’m getting f----- over, man. Every time, man, every time. … Man, damn, man … go to jail. Everything. Man, man, man.”

No charges were filed, and Floyd was later released.

The year 2020 began much the same way Floyd’s entire life had transpired. Flashing lights. Armed officers walking toward him. The possibility of something going wrong, and his freedom — and life — always hanging in the balance.

On the third day of the year, Floyd was stopped again for speeding. He was driving a delivery truck but could not prove to the officer that he had the right permits. $233. Six days later on Jan. 9, a Minnesota State Patrol officer witnessed the same delivery truck weaving in traffic and crash into another car at a red light. Floyd told the trooper he had been falling asleep. $135.

A state police officer in Minneapolis on May 29 as protests over Floyd's death grew across the nation.
A state police officer in Minneapolis on May 29 as protests over Floyd's death grew across the nation. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

On the last day of Floyd’s life, employees at a Minneapolis convenience store alleged that a man had used a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes. They reported the man was “awfully drunk” and “not in control of himself.”

Two Minneapolis police officers quickly arrived at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue.

Floyd knew the routine. His muscles tensed. He was frustrated. He was in distress and scared. He complained of claustrophobia and resisted getting inside the patrol car.

Officer Derek Chauvin arrived moments later and pulled Floyd out the back seat where he was struggling to stay calm. The three officers pinned him against the pavement. Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd’s neck, pressing it there, minute after agonizing minute.

“Mama, mama, mama!

I can’t breathe!

Please, man.

You’re going to kill me, man!

I can’t believe this.

Tell my kids, I love them.

I’m dead.”

Robert Samuels and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. in Minneapolis; and Holly Bailey contributed to this report.

About this story

Editing by Steven Ginsberg and Simone Sebastian. Design and development by Junne Alcantara. Design editing by Suzette Moyer. Additional development by Lucio Villa and Jake Crump. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof and Robert Miller. Copy editing by Vince Rinehart. Video by Alice Li and Drea Cornejo. Video editing by Reem Akkad and Nicki DeMarco. Post Reports audio by Ted Muldoon and Linah Mohammad. Audio editing by Maggie Penman. Social promotion by Ric Sanchez and Travis Lyles. Audience engagement by Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn. Operations by María Sánchez Díez. Project management by Julie Vitkovskaya.

Arelis Hernández is a Texas-based border correspondent on the national desk working with the immigration team and roving the U.S. southern border. Hernández joined the Post in 2014 to cover politics and government on the local desk after spending four years as a breaking news and crime reporter at the Orlando Sentinel.