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Officers charged in George Floyd’s killing had been taught to intervene, police trainer testifies

Former Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao were at the scene with Derek Chauvin and are accused of violating Floyd’s civil rights

Protesters stand outside of the Warren E. Burger Federal Building before opening arguments in the civil trial of three former Minneapolis police officers, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, charged with violating George Floyd's civil rights when they took part in his fatal arrest. (Eric Miller/Reuters)
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ST PAUL, Minn. — The three former Minneapolis police officers on trial for violating George Floyd’s civil rights had been trained to verbally and physically intervene to stop a colleague from using unreasonable force and broke department policy when they didn’t stop Derek Chauvin from kneeling on Floyd’s neck, a police supervisor testified Friday.

Katie Blackwell, a Minneapolis Police Department inspector who commanded the agency’s training division at the time of Floyd’s May 2020 death, testified that former officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao had undergone hours of training on the department’s use of force guidelines, including the duty to intervene and the obligation to render medical aid when someone in their custody needs it.

“You are accountable for what you do — and if you don’t do anything at all,” Blackwell said, as prosecutors questioned her about the department’s training practices and policies in the run-up to Floyd’s killing.

Blackwell testified that in her viewing of the body-camera footage of Floyd’s fatal arrest, she found the behavior of Kueng, Lane and Thao “inconsistent” with police policy. She said the officers failed to intervene to get Chauvin to stop using force, and should have repositioned Floyd when he stopped resisting and rendered medical aid when he lost consciousness.

Asked if there was anything that could have prevented the officers from intervening, Blackwell replied, “Nothing.”

What to know about the federal trial of the three former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s death

But Thomas Plunkett, an attorney for Kueng, tried to raise doubts about Blackwell’s testimony, suggesting Minneapolis officers are not given adequate scenario training on intervention policies and operate in a militarized environment where younger officers are strongly discouraged from disagreeing with senior officers.

Plunkett also questioned Blackwell’s handing of training, pointing out the division is now part of a federal investigation into the Minneapolis police by the Justice Department. He also questioned her relationship with Chauvin, who joined the department around the same time she did, and whom she later appointed as a field training officer.

Chauvin had served as Kueng’s field training officer and had also loosely advised Lane in the months before Floyd’s death, when they were probationary officers, which led them to defer to Chauvin at the May 2020 scene, Kueng and Lane’s attorneys said.

At one point, Plunkett held up several sheets of paper and began to ask how Blackwell could have appointed Chauvin to be a FTO when “his psychological evaluation said” before abruptly stopping. Blackwell testified that she was “not privy to that information,” describing it as a record handled by the department’s human resources department.

“No one ever looked at this and decided if he should train young officers?” Plunkett asked.

The contentious back and forth came as the first week of the federal trial into Floyd’s killing wound to an end.

A federal grand jury indicted Chauvin, Kueng, Lane and Thao in May on charges that they violated Floyd’s constitutional rights when he was restrained and handcuffed face down on a Minneapolis street during an investigation of an alleged counterfeit $20 bill.

Kueng, Lane and Thao were charged with failing to render medical aid to Floyd. Kueng and Thao were also charged with violating Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure by not intervening as Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck and back.

Kueng, Lane and Thao have each pleaded not guilty in both cases. All three have signaled through their attorneys that they will place the blame for Floyd’s death on Chauvin, who was convicted in April on state charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 22½ years in prison.

Chauvin pleaded guilty last month to separate federal charges that he violated Floyd’s constitutional rights when he knelt on the man’s neck and back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, as Floyd begged for breath. He is awaiting sentencing in that case.

In addition to shifting the blame to Chauvin for Floyd’s death, attorneys for Kueng and Lane have signaled they plan to put the culture and training practices of the police department on trial.

In his opening statement Monday, Plunkett said the department had not only failed Floyd but his client, saying he had received “inadequate training” as a police officer.

Prosecutors sought to undermine that argument Friday by introducing into evidence employment and training records — including a copy of the manual for the Minneapolis Police Academy that Kueng and Lane attended in the fall of 2019. The former officers, who were in the same cadet class, graduated from the academy and were sworn in as probationary officers in December 2019, just months before the altercation with Floyd.

Blackwell said she knew both Kueng and Lane from the academy, where she oversaw training.

Opening statements begin in federal trial over George Floyd’s killing

Prosecutors also introduced into evidence lengthy PowerPoint presentations from in-service trainings that Thao attended in 2018 and 2019 that repeatedly warned of the medical dangers of restraining someone in a prone position and the need to monitor someone’s condition and render medical aid if necessary.

The presentations shown to the jury also included an explanation of the department’s duty to intervene policies when a colleague is using inappropriate force or force that is no longer needed. “It is your DUTY to stop the application of force,” read one slide from a 2019 training session that Thao attended.

Lawyers for Kueng and Lane have argued that their clients were taking cues from Chauvin, a 19-year member of the department.

But Blackwell testified Friday that under MPD policy, the senior officer in the first responding car is the officer deemed in control of the scene. In this case, it was Lane, Blackwell said. Lane had worked four shifts as a full-time officer, compared to the three that Kueng had worked.

Lane, who was holding Floyd’s legs, twice asked Chauvin whether they should reposition Floyd — requests that his lawyer says prove that he tried to intervene with a senior officer but was rebuffed, though the video of the conversation does not indicate any urgency to Lane’s requests.

Kueng later checked Floyd’s pulse — twice telling Chauvin that he couldn’t detect the man’s heartbeat. But Chauvin did not remove his knees from Floyd’s body until nudged by a responding paramedic.

The federal case has so far been dominated by evidence that has already been introduced in the state case. Since Tuesday, jurors have heard from many of the same witnesses who appeared in the Chauvin trial — including Blackwell and Genevieve Hansen, an off-duty Minneapolis firefighter who came across the scene and urged the officers to check Floyd’s pulse but was rebuffed.

Hansen testified Wednesday that Thao questioned if she was really a firefighter. Footage from Thao’s body camera introduced as evidence in the case shows Thao yelling at Hansen to “back off” as she told the officers she was a firefighter, prompting Thao to reply “then you would know” — which Hansen said she interpreted to mean she would know better than to intervene.

What to know about the federal trial of the three former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s death

In testimony this week, Earl Gray, Lane’s attorney, used cross examination of some witnesses to call attention to video showing his client performing CPR on Floyd inside an ambulance trying to revive the man — as he argues that Lane did try to intervene and save Floyd’s life.

But Derek Smith, one of the responding paramedics, said under prosecution questioning that Lane did not tell him that Floyd had been restrained with officers on top of him for nearly 10 minutes or that he had been unconscious and without a pulse for several minutes.

Still, Smith said that Lane had been “helpful” inside the ambulance.

Body camera footage shows struggle leading to George Floyd’s fatal police encounter

Thao has claimed he did not know what was going on behind him, describing his role at the scene as a “human traffic cone” who was focused on a growing crowd at the scene. But his body-camera video shows him looking back toward Chauvin and the other officers atop Floyd several times, including when the man complained of being unable to breathe and moaned that officers were going to “kill” him.

At one point, the footage, captured from a camera positioned on Thao’s chest, shows the officer turn back to the increasingly frantic bystanders on the sidewalk — a crowd that defense attorneys have sought to depict as threatening to the officers. “This is why you don’t do drugs, kids,” Thao said.

During her testimony, Hansen acknowledged under cross-examination by Robert Paule, Thao’s attorney, that she told federal investigators two days after Floyd’s death that she wasn’t sure if Thao knew what was going on behind him. She testified that she believed Thao “was in the way” of Floyd getting medical aid that she could have provided.

A prosecutor asked Hansen whether she felt she could have made a “difference” if allowed to come to Floyd’s medical aid. “I believe so,” she replied, prompting an objection from Kueng’s attorney. A prosecutor then asked Hansen if she felt Floyd had the right to receive medical attention. “Absolutely,” Hansen replied, as the question drew another defense objection, citing an order in the case prohibiting that testimony.

While U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson, who is overseeing the case, sustained those objections, Plunkett, Kueng’s attorney, asked for a mistrial on Thursday — his third request this week — accusing prosecutors of violating limits on testimony and asking leading questions that jurors can’t unhear even if the judge strikes those answers from the record.

Attorneys for Lane and Thao also complained that prosecutors are forcing them to repeatedly object, which they argued made their clients look bad in the eyes of the jury.

Magnuson rejected two of the mistrial requests, but did not immediately indicate a ruling on the third. The judge issued a “cautionary” warning to the prosecution to be “very, very careful.”

On Friday, Matthew Frank, an assistant Minnesota attorney general who is leading the state prosecution of the former officers, was seated in the courtroom as an observer, taking notes as Blackwell testified.