Black Cop Who Watched George Floyd Die Thought He’d Be Fired If He Intervened

J. Alexander Kueng even said that Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more 9 minutes, technically had the ability to terminate him.
alexander-kueng-feared-being-fired-for-intervening
Left: J. Alexander Kueng. (Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via AP) Right: George Floyd (image courtesy of family)

When former Minneapolis police officer J. Alexander Kueng took the stand in the federal trial against him and two other officers who watched George Floyd’s murder, he spoke about the department’s culture of rooting out those who didn’t follow orders unconditionally. 

“Was there concern about being fired?” Kueng’s attorney asked Wednesday.

“Every day, sir,” Kueng said. “It was clear the chain of command was not to be breached, or else.”

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Kueng is one of three former cops facing life in prison for allegedly depriving Floyd of his civil rights when they failed to provide medical attention or intervene in the 46-year-old Black man’s deadly arrest by former officer Derek Chauvin, who’s now serving 22 and a half years in prison for murder.

So far, the officers’ defense has focused on the shortcomings of their training and the strict hierarchy of policing: Even if they thought Chauvin shouldn’t have knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, they couldn’t have spoken up, especially to a superior officer. Kueng even said that Chauvin, who had 19 years of experience on the force, technically had the ability to terminate him if he saw fit, according to the Star Tribune.

“There is no question, you don't second guess, you don’t think about it, you just follow it,” Kueng, who had less than a week of policing experience when Floyd was killed, said later in his testimony.

It’s that unconditional loyalty that has become the building blocks and near impervious foundation for the Blue Wall of Silence until recent years.

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Kueng, the only Black officer present the day Floyd was killed, said that he joined the department despite his discomfort with police. Growing up on the north side of Minneapolis, he testified that repeated encounters with “rude and unhelpful” police officers gave him a mostly negative outlook on law enforcement as a child. But, like many Black people who join policing, he decided to try to make systemic changes from within.

“If I wanted to see officers that citizens deserve, I should step up if I thought I could be that person,” Kueng said in court Wednesday, according to pool reports.

What he found when he joined the academy, however, was a harsh environment where failure to meet an instructor’s standards could result in severe consequences, including termination. In this environment, trainers had the final say.

During training, Kueng said he and others were told only sworn employees who received the proper training were allowed to use neck restraints. Additionally, he and his colleagues were only shown examples of arrest intervention where the arresting officer was actively stomping, kicking, or punching a handcuffed person.

“There was no scenario-based training on duty to intervene,” Kueng said plainly. 

Just a day before Kueng testified, his former colleague Tou Thao also testified as to how new recruits were trained. Thao’s attorney Robert Paule showed jurors photos from 2009 of Thao and his colleagues restraining people using their knees on suspect’s upper backs—and potentially their necks—without objection from their trainers, according to pool reports.

“Is this something that was typically taught at the academy when you were there?” Paule asked Thao. He responded yes.

Both of the officers’ testimonies contrast what former Chief Medaria Arradondo’s said during Chauvin’s murder trial—that his actions violated department “training, ethics, and values.” According to current Minneapolis police guidelines as well, officers are supposed to intervene when they see wrongdoing.

Thao, who was the first officer to take the stand in the trial, also detailed in his hourslong testimony that his time training to be an officer had similarities with traditional military training. Young future officers were often tased when learning how to safely use less-lethal force and even gassed when taught how to use gas masks, he said, according to Star Tribune reporter Andrew Mannix.

Just a year after he trained to become a police officer, Thao was laid off due to department budget cuts. Then, a mentally-ill Black man named David Smith died in similar circumstances as Floyd: During an attempted arrest, Minneapolis police officers tased the 28-year-old and kneeled on his neck for minutes, even after he became unresponsive. The tragic encounter resulted in a $3 million settlement with Smith’s family as well as a total overhaul of how the department restrains people.

But when Thao was get called back to work with the department in 2011, the former cop testified he was given just a month both to refamiliarize himself with everything he learned years before and get caught up to speed on the changes in department restraint policy, according to pool reports out of St. Paul.

Thao and Kueng’s testimony wouldn’t be the first time the public heard about disparities between old training methods and new ones.

During Chauvin’s state murder trial last spring, his attorney specified the difference between what his client would have learned when he was joining the department in 2001 and what the department expects of its officers now, going as far as to say the restraint he used against Floyd was an example of “exactly what he was trained to do.”

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