Cop Who Watched George Floyd Die Says He Was Trained to Use Knee on Suspects

When ex-Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao took the stand in court Tuesday, he testified that he was trained to use knees on suspects.
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Left: Officer Tou Thao (Right: George Floyd (image courtesy of family)

When the first of the ex-cops who watched George Floyd die took the stand in court Tuesday, he testified that he and his fellow officers were trained to put their knees on suspect’s backs—and even possibly their necks. His defense attorney showed photos from police training depicting the controversial maneuver.

"Is this something that was typically taught at the academy when you were there?” former Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao was asked by his attorney, Robert Paule, referring to the maneuver, according to FOX 9 reporter Rob Olson.

“Yes," Thao replied.

Thao, who kept onlookers at bay as Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes, is facing charges of depriving the 46-year-old Black man of his civil rights by not providing him medical attention and failing to intervene in his fatal arrest in May 2020. His testimony on Tuesday was meant to dismantle the prosecution’s argument that the three officers who watched Floyd die weren’t following protocol when they didn’t stop Chauvin. Minneapolis police officer even broke the so-called Blue Wall of Silence to testify that Chauvin had, in fact, broken protocol.

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The three officers’ defense has also argued the officers were simply following the orders of their superior officer, Chauvin, who had 19 years of experience.

During Thao’s testimony, jurors saw several photos from his days as a trainee in 2009, according to reporters in the closed St. Paul courtroom. The photos showed officers subduing fellow trainees to learn how to apply the restraint while attempting to arrest someone lying on their stomach, in what’s called the prone position. In the photos, recruits can be seen using their knees to pin people down, according to pool reporters. 

Thao even said it was normal to see prospective officers use the knee to apply pressure to the “upper back, possibly neck, head area,” according to Olson. Thao also noted that trainers never flagged the use of knees during these restraints as an incorrect procedure, according to pool reporters.

That’s why, Thao testified, when he saw Chauvin kneel on Floyd’s neck, he didn’t find it strange. In fact, Thao said that he had performed a similar restraint using his forearm, as his 5-foot-6 stature means he can’t properly employ the maneuver with his lower body.

Thao was part of the recruiting class of Minneapolis police officers laid off in 2009 due to department budget cuts. When he was offered a job with the department again in 2011, Thao testified, he was only given a month’s refresher on department training, which would have included its new stance on issues like the use of force. 

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The acceptance of maneuvers that involved a knee on a prone suspect prior to 2011 also came up during Chauvin’s murder trial. His attorney Eric Nelson included photos of training showing the maneuver in pretrial filings and said that his client had been trained to use it, according to the Associated Press.

On Tuesday, Thao’s attorney also flagged the military-like environment in which officers trained. At the time, officers were gassed when being trained how to use gas masks and were often tased when training to use the less-lethal tool. They also wore fatigues and even ran drills complete with chants and cadences.

During his testimony Tuesday, Thao also gave jurors an idea of what was going through his mind the day Floyd was murdered—just a few feet away from where he was standing. He testified that Floyd had beads of sweat on his forehead, was incoherent, and was giving officers Keung and Lane a hard time getting into the patrol car when he and Chauvin arrived. Thao said that when he and Chauvin joined in on the arrest, he’d never experienced someone put up as much of a struggle as Floyd did in his decade on the job.

Thao testified that he attributed Floyd’s state to “excited delirium,” a supposed state of hyper-agitation and increased energy commonly used by police to describe Black people under duress. During the arrest, Thao also said he heard Floyd say that he “ate drugs,” which can contribute to the so-called state of excited delirium. (Prosecutors have interpreted Floyd saying “I ain’t do any drugs” while the defense has argued he said, “I ate too many drugs” in both the state and federal trials.)

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The department protocol with excited delirium, according to Thao, is to restrain the person until paramedics arrive.

“I’m suspecting excited delirium, and I know we’re really running short on time,” Thao said in court, according to Olson.

And while he heard Floyd say he couldn’t breathe, Thao testified he didn’t think much of it. Since the death of Eric Garner in New York in 2014, Thao said many suspects he’d come in contact with would say something similar during arrests. He instead focused entirely on ensuring bystanders wouldn’t interfere in the arrest and trusted that the officers were taking care of Floyd.

“Why didn’t you participate in the restraint of Mr. Floyd or his medical assessment?” Paule asked.

“Because at that point I have a different role, to do crowd control to allow them to attend to Mr. Floyd,” Thao answered, according to reporters. “If they’re not doing CPR, then I assume that he’s still breathing and fine.”

Thao is facing trial along with former Minneapolis police officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng on charges of violating Floyd’s civil rights. Like Thao, Kueng faces an additional charge of failing to intervene in Floyd’s arrest. They each face up to life in prison if found guilty. 

The two other officers on trial are expected to testify as well. 

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