Retired Sgt. David Ploeger of the Minneapolis Police Department testified Thursday in the trial of former officer Derek Chauvin that the force officers used against George Floyd went on too long and should have ended once Floyd had been handcuffed and stopped resisting.
“When Mr. Floyd was no longer offering up any resistance to the officers, they could have ended the restraint,” Ploeger told the court.
“It would be reasonable to put a knee on someone’s neck until they were not resisting anymore, but it should stop when they are no longer combative,” he said, later adding that officers are supposed to put restrained subjects on their side to help with their breathing, according to police policy.
Ploeger was the final witness on Thursday and opened the door to what will likely be a technical portion of the trial.
Ploeger, who was the shift supervisor in charge of Chauvin and the three other officers responding to the call about a man trying to use a counterfeit bill at Cup Foods, was repeatedly asked about the department’s use of force policies in an attempt to establish whether Chauvin violated those protocols or acted within their bounds.
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The veteran law enforcement officer is the supervisor who was called by 911 dispatcher Jena Scurry on the day Floyd died in police custody. Scurry, who testified on Monday, had become alarmed watching real-time video footage of the arrest, and told the court that the officers pinned Floyd to the ground in a prone position for so long, she initially believed her dispatch screen had frozen.
In a tape of her call to the department, the court heard her telling Ploeger that she believed the officers used excessive force but that the incident had not been reported as of that moment.
That call prompted Ploeger to call Chauvin on his cellphone, an exchange the jury heard for the first time on Thursday.
In the call, the sergeant asks Chauvin what’s going on.
“I was just going to call and have you come out to our scene here,” the defendant can be heard saying.
“We had to hold a guy down. He was going crazy. … He wouldn’t go in the back of the squad,” Chauvin said before the recorded portion of the call was cut off.
He does not tell Ploeger that he had managed to restrain Floyd by pressing his knee into the Black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes as onlookers narrated what appeared to be his final breaths.
“I believe he told me that they had tried to put Mr. Floyd, I didn’t know his name at the time, Mr. Floyd into the car. He had become combative,” Ploeger recalled on the stand.
“I think he mentioned that he had injured — either his nose or his mouth, a bloody lip, I think, and eventually after struggling with him, he suffered a medical emergency and an ambulance was called and they headed out of the scene,” Ploeger continued.
Following the call, Ploeger said he drove to the scene of the incident, where upon arrival learned of the gravity of the situation. But even after he arrived, he told the court, neither Chauvin nor any of the other officers informed him that the defendant had knelt on Floyd’s neck and back, while handcuffed and long after he’d passed out.
It wasn’t until later that night at the Hennepin County Medical Center that Chauvin finally told him what he’d done, Ploeger said. But the officer did not specify the length of time, he had pinned down Floyd.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson spent much of the cross examination asking Ploeger a series of hypothetical questions to illustrate how officers are required to assess various threat levels in any given situation and modify their behavior accordingly.
If during an arrest, a crowd of bystanders grows increasingly volatile, Nelson asked, should an officer focus on the arrest or the crowd?
“I guess you’d have to deal with both simultaneously,” Ploeger responded.
Then Nelson proposed a more extreme scenario: He asked if Ploeger were involved in a gun battle and a person was injured, would he deal with threat or perform CPR on the imaginary victim?”
Ploeger said he would deal with the threat.
In response to another of Nelson’s questions, Ploeger said he agreed that officers sometimes have to do very violent things.
Prosecutor Steve Schleicher then picked up the same thread but came at it from the opposite angle.
“Sometimes the information they’re taking in would cause officers to take more drastic measures. But sometimes the information they are taking in would cause them to use less dramatic measures,” Schleicher stated.
“Correct,” Ploeger responded.
“Some information the officer must take in is whether or not the subject is resisting and if the subject is not resisting, there is no longer the need to continue to detain them,” the prosecutor asked.
Schleicher then asked if it would be reasonable in the critical thinking model for an officer to take the subject’s medical condition into account.
“For example if the subject is no longer breathing, would it be important to take that into account. … Or if the subject no longer has a pulse, should they take than into consideration and decide to maybe take a different step?
“Yes,” Ploeger agreed.
“And in such a case would it be possible that the officer may not need to do something violent but less violent. Like render medical assistance?”
Again, Ploeger said yes.
Schleicher then returned to the example of the gun battle posed by Nelson.
“You didn’t see a gun battle,” he asked, referring to the various videos Ploeger has reviewed of the incident.