Minneapolis police officers used unsafe tactics and had several opportunities to stop the death of George Floyd, Verona police chief Bernie Coughlin told the Press on Monday, June 1.
Floyd, who died in police custody Monday, May 25, at age 46, leading to the firing of four officers involved in his arrest, charges for at least one of those officers and a wave of protests around the country and world.
A half-dozen police chiefs from around Dane County condemned the actions of those four officers during a virtual town hall May 28. The Dane County Chiefs of Police Association did the same in writing later that day, calling their actions “heinous and unacceptable.”
Coughlin, an active member of the association, told the Press he agreed with the statement entirely.
The Press interviewed Coughlin by email about the use of force by Minneapolis police that resulted in Floyd’s death and how Verona police handle difficult situations.
Coughlin said after reviewing the video that not only were the tactics unsafe — there seemed to be many instances the four Minneapolis police officers could have stopped, adjusted those tactics or intervened.
“Why did the officer continue to keep his knee on Floyd’s neck? Why didn’t the officers assess Mr. Floyd’s condition throughout their interaction with him?” Coughlin wrote in an email to the Press.
Coughlin also said events in Minneapolis affect police all over the country, eroding the public trust.
The Hennepin County medical examiner’s report stated that Floyd died from use of force, but did not include suffocation as a means of death and instead cited Floyd’s pre-existing health conditions. An independent autopsy commissioned by Floyd’s family suggested asphyxiation more directly caused the man’s death.
The officer who held his knee on Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, was arrested later in the week after people had begun to take to the Minneapolis streets to protest. More than 100 major cities across the country have seen protests, involving peaceful marches, shouting, vandalism, looting and burning of buildings and police vehicles. Police have responded in a variety of ways, as well, from standing still and staying out of the way to using teargas and rubber-coated bullets.
Questions and answers have been edited for grammar and clarity.
Verona Press: Have you seen the video, what did you think of it?
Bernie Coughlin: Yes, it’s troubling and difficult to watch.
VP: Where do you think the officers involved in George Floyd’s death went wrong?
BC: There appears to be many wrong actions and many inactions.
Once in handcuffs, Floyd could have been repositioned to increase the opportunity for him to breathe. He could have been moved to his side or an upright sitting position and then checked for the ABCs (airway, breathing and circulation).
Why did the officer continue to keep his knee on Floyd’s neck? Why didn’t the officers assess Mr. Floyd’s condition throughout their interaction with him? I do not know at what point in the video that EMS was requested; however, requesting their assistance earlier than later is preferred.
Other officers that were present could have, and definitely should have, intervened.
VP: Is holding a knee on a person’s neck a legitimate tactic that VPD uses?
BC: No. Using a knee on the neck would require a deadly force justification.
VP: How does this event, and the fallout from it, affect your ability to police in areas where there are tensions between police and the community?
BC: It makes the job significantly more difficult. VPD staff works every day to earn the trust of the public and this incident can terminate that trust with some people and cause doubt in others who would have ordinarily been supportive and trusting. Trust is a delicate privilege that sometimes takes years to earn and can be destroyed in an instant. In this case, by officers from another state and several hours from away from Verona.
VP: If you need to physically restrain a person, what techniques are used?
BC: The techniques are many and dependent upon the specific situation and circumstances.
These techniques are derived from the Wisconsin Department of Justice Bureau of Training and Standards. Wisconsin’s system of Defensive and Arrest Tactics (DAAT) is defined as a system of verbalization skills coupled with physical alternatives. This definition reflects the goal of gaining voluntary compliance.
Achieving your objective by verbal persuasion is always preferable to having to use physical intervention.
VP: What are examples of situations that would merit enforcement that would require an officer to physically restrain a person?
BC: There are far too many to list here. The DAAT system is backed by two important concepts that guide Wisconsin law enforcement. These are: Incident Response and Disturbance Resolution. Incident Response is a general framework for how officers should respond to calls.
The Disturbance Resolution provides a model for how officers should deal with situations in which they must intervene to resolve a disturbance. This model is where it is more likely to require an officer to physically restrain a person.
This model includes Control Alternatives (to overcome passive resistance, active resistance, or their threats), Protective Alternatives (to overcome continued resistance, assaultive behavior, or their threats) or Deadly Force (to stop the threat).
VP: Do you encourage your officers to call out actions they see from their peers that they don’t agree with?
VP: Is there a system for reporting behaviors that makes officers feel comfortable in doing so?
BC: Yes, much of which is detailed in Policy & Procedure 1.03 Code of Conduct. I will provide several Rules of Conduct that require an officer to “call out actions they see from their peers that they don’t agree with:” Use of Force; Treatment of Persons in Custody; Requirement to Report; Integrity and Equality.
Each of these rules are defined and several examples describe what is required of an officer for each respective example/situation.