Protesting and looting have broken out in Minneapolis. A loud, emotional outcry over the death of a black man in the custody of white police officers has created an extremely tense atmosphere with many people across America wondering how could such an incident happen again.
On Monday night, an employee at a Minneapolis grocery store called police after George Floyd who is black allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. Police arrived and found Floyd, who fit the suspect’s description, in a car, and according to a police report ‘appeared to be in medical distress’ as he was handcuffed.
For several minutes someone at the scene videotaped what happened on a cellphone. The video shows the 46-year old Floyd on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back. Officer Derek Chauvin is using his knee on Floyd’s neck to force him into the pavement. Floyd is crying out in pain. complaining that he can’t breathe.
He says ” I can’t breathe. Please, I need my neck, I can’t breathe, sh**.”
One of the officers can be heard saying “Get up and get in the car.”
“I can’t…my neck, I’m through,” Floyd responded. “My stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts.”
After about four minutes Floyd’s body went limp while Chauvin’s knee was still planted on his neck. An ambulance took Floyd to a hospital where died shortly after arrival.
Chauvin and three other officers were fired from The Minneapolis Police Department.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has called on Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman to press charges against the arresting officer for Floyd’s death. Frey said, “If you had done it, or if I had done it, we would be behind bars right now. We watched for five whole excruciating minutes as a white officer firmly pressed his knee into the neck of an unarmed, handcuffed black man. I saw no threat. I saw nothing that would signal that this kind of force was necessary. By the way, that particular technique that was used is not authorized by the MPD…and it should not have been used period.”
Floyd’s brother Philonase Floyd said, “They could have tased him, they could have maced him. Instead, they put their knee in his neck and just sat on him and then carried on. They treated him worse than they treat animals.”
Floyd’s cousin Tera Brown added, “They need to be charged with murder because what they did was murder. And almost the whole world has witnessed that because somebody was gracious enough to record it. They need to pay for what they did.”
This case has similarities to the death of Ernest Lacy in Milwaukee a few decades ago. It was one of the first major news stories I reported on during my journalistic career that began at WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio. Our news team won awards for our coverage.
July 9, 1981 was a hot and humid day in Milwaukee. Ernest Lacy and his cousin, Jeff Garland, waited until conditions cooled before they began to paint an apartment building at 20th and Wisconsin Avenue.
When it got to be around 10:30 the 22-year old Lacy wanted to take a break and headed to a Pantry Food Mart four blocks away to buy a snack. But he never got there.
Three Milwaukee police officers, George Kalt, James Dekker, and Thomas Eliopul were on patrol, cruising the streets. Ironically they had been scheduled to go on trial before the city’s Fire and Police Commission earlier at 5:00 PM for claims they beat a man they had arrested, but their attorneys requested and got a postponement.
Sometime around 10 P.M., the three officers heard a report of a rape on North 26th Street and they also got a description of a suspect.
Lacy was near the store when he was stopped by the officers because he matched the description. Eyewitnesses said Lacy attempted to run and was taken to the ground by the three officers. Lacy was handcuffed, hands behind his back, and placed in a police van.
Different officers arrested another man thought to be the possible rapist. But it wasn’t enough to save Lacy.
An eyewitness, Fred Kolde, an electrician, was on his way home when he saw police force Lacy to the ground after he tried to run away. Kolde told the Lacy family attorney Alan Eisenberg that “They put the handcuffs on him behind his back.” Two officers held Lacy’s legs down by putting their feet on his legs. The third officer put his knee between Lacy’s shoulder blades. At that point one of the officers pulled Lacy’s arms up ”beyond his shoulder blades and over his ears. I saw one violent, convulsive seizure and then the black man was absolutely still” Kolde said.
Lacy would be loaded into another police van that came a few minutes later. Kolde said Lacy’s ”eyes were open, his tongue was partially out, he was not breathing and he was not moving. He was limp.”
Other eyewitnesses gave the same account.
Black community residents saw police brutality. Police said Lacy (who was cleared of the rape allegation) resisted arrest.
The judge presiding at an inquest ruled there was a lack of probable cause to charge two of the officers with misconduct in office. Eliopol was never accused of misconduct. The three officers were initially charged with homicide by reckless conduct, but that charge had already been dismissed.
Following Lacy’s death and throughout the lengthy legal process there were regular protests and marches. Prior to the Lacy case there had been other high profile incidents in Milwaukee of police being accused of brutality.
The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission eventually fired the officer on Lacy’s back and suspended the other two.
The “Lacy Law” was passed by the WI legislature and went into effect in 1983 requiring any law enforcement officer to render or seek medical aid for any person in his or her custody. Failure to do so is a violation of the law and the law provides penalties if bodily harm results from the failure to render or seek that medical aid.
A significant difference between the George Floyd and Ernest Lacy cases is the existence of lengthy video that also includes audio of officers and Floyd as he cried out for help. That could be enough to determine if the officers acted beyond the scope of their duties.
UPDATE: Officer charged