The news release indicated that officers were called to Chicago Avenue South after a report of a “forgery in progress.” The suspect, they were reportedly told, “appeared to be under the influence.” Why include that detail? One obvious reason is to bolster the idea that Floyd’s death might have been the result of something other than police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for an extended period of time, as a jury in Minneapolis decided on Tuesday it was. Perhaps, instead, it was a drug overdose, as Chauvin’s defenders repeatedly claimed in the months that followed.
The statement continued:
“Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”
To a reader on May 25, 2020, that description depicts an immediately connected chain of events: as Floyd is handcuffed, it is noted that he in distress. But in reality, the preceding paragraph includes the longest “and” in the history of the English language. It is an over nine-minute- “and,” linking the moment when Floyd was placed in handcuffs to the time at which that “medical distress” necessitated that he be moved to an ambulance. It’s an “and” that silently includes more than a minute in which Floyd had already lost consciousness.
“At no time were weapons of any type used by anyone involved in this incident,” the police statement reads. This, too, is true in a very specific sense: no firearms were drawn or discharged. One can also read this as supporting the overarching narrative, given the broad (and justified) association between the deaths of Black men in police custody with their being shot by police officers.
We are encouraged, tacitly or not, to read the story in this way: No weapons were used in detaining a maybe-intoxicated man who was noted to be in distress shortly after being handcuffed. That depiction of events, however divorced from reality, is at least credible — particularly given the report’s addendum that “[b]ody worn cameras were on and activated during this incident.” Given that, surely the police department wouldn’t misrepresent what happened. Right?
But they had, as we now know.
Last August, the Los Angeles Times interviewed John Elder, the Minneapolis Police Department director of public information who wrote the news release.
Elder didn’t review the body camera footage before writing it up, he said, since that would have taken hours. Instead, he “got his information from sergeants who work in the area where Floyd was killed and from computer-aided dispatch, which serves as a log of communications between officers and dispatchers.” But that log “didn’t include any details about the use of force,” the Times’s Maya Lau reported.
“This had literally zero intent to deceive or be dishonest or disingenuous,” Elder explained. Had he seen the video recorded by a bystander showing Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck, he assured Lau, “that statement would have been completely different.”
That latter part is likely true. It is because of that cellphone video that we all, the Minneapolis Police Department included, understand what preceded Floyd’s death. That point was reiterated repeatedly during Chauvin’s trial: You saw what happened. Even as the defense tried to again suggest that Floyd had somehow died of a drug overdose, there was that video footage of Chauvin blocking off George Floyd’s breath.
But the first part of the statement is dubious in a different way. Perhaps there was no overt attempt to deceive. There was, however, an untested assumption that the presentation of what occurred offered by that log and by those sergeants on the scene told a complete version of the story. Elder didn’t try to be dishonest, but he also didn’t try very hard not to be.
In the abstract, that’s not his job. He isn’t a detective chasing down leads before conveying what he knows. He’s not a reporter, tasked with presenting as complete a picture as he can. He’s a public relations guy, and for a public relations guy putting out a news release late on a Monday evening, a story from his team in the field that didn’t raise any immediate red flags was good enough.
There are two challenges to that approach. The first is that we are granting Elder the benefit of the ignorance he claims, which is as fraught a decision as was Elder’s apparent decision to trust those sergeants. The second challenge, as the Floyd situation reinforces, is that it equates Elder with the social media intern tasked with tweeting out new Cheerios flavors. He’s not just a marketing guy putting spin on a story. He’s a representative of an organization funded by taxpayers and predicated on public service. His job is to inform the public, not to cast the Minneapolis Police Department in the most positive possible light.
George Floyd’s death shed some light the national system of law enforcement, but was a searing spotlight into this one police department and its staff. It was also an echo that stretched back through history, showing how one police officer and the department that employs him might take someone’s life without any more remembrance than a false, incomplete story issued by the police themselves.
There have been police in the United States for about 175 years and cellphones with video recording capabilities for about 20. This one statement from the Minneapolis Police Department, however sincerely well intentioned, demands that we append an asterisk of uncertainty to every other story about every other death at the hands of police over those first 155 years.