Incomplete justice: There’s another trial to go in George Floyd case
Amid the relief over the conviction of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd, it’s easy to forget that three former Minneapolis police officers, Thomas K. Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao, will go on trial, likely in August, for aiding and abetting the murder. An acquittal of these defendants could be a blow to justice in the Floyd case — and to much needed police reform.
These defendants appear to have stronger defenses than Chauvin’s if for no other reason than that none of them had their knee on George Floyd’s neck, which is why they are charged only with aiding and abetting. Attorneys for Kueng and Lane, who had both been on the force less than a week when Floyd died, have argued that they were following orders from Chauvin, a 19-year veteran.
Lane contends that he asked Chauvin whether they should reposition Floyd and that he was worried about “excited delirium,” a term used by medical examiners to describe an in-custody death of a person in an agitated or drug influenced state, but Chauvin only said, “well that’s why we got the ambulance coming.” Thao, a more experienced officer who is seen in videos facing the crowd of alarmed onlookers, has described his role as “a human traffic cone” and that he was unaware of what was taking place behind him (although prosecutors allege that he had a direct look at how Chauvin was restraining Floyd).
The issue in their trial could come down to whether the jury thinks that the three could and should have done more to stop Chauvin from choking the life out of George Floyd. In police reform argot, this is known as “peer intervention.” Peer intervention training stresses to police officers that intervention saves civilian lives, prevents the destruction of police careers and protects policemen and their force from criminal and civil liability.
Peer intervention is a police officer’s legal duty. Since 2016 the Minneapolis Police Department rules require police officers to intervene to stop improper use of force by a fellow police officer and report any such incident to a superior (that didn’t happen either). George Floyd might be alive today had Lane or Keung or Thao intervened to stop Chauvin, if only to just push him aside. As Paul Noel, the deputy superintendent of the New Orleans police department, said, “That’s what I can’t get past. This was preventable.”
Police peer intervention is up against formidable “inhibitors,” which may have been a dynamic in George Floyd’s death. They include fear of retaliation by other policemen and the shared identity that police officers develop from working in stressful, frequently dangerous circumstances, where they often depend on each other for safety. Perhaps Lane didn’t press his concerns because he was afraid of Chauvin, a much more senior police officer, who had displayed aggressive behavior both on and off duty. It can be hard for a junior police officer to go against a senior officer, but then no one should become a cop unless they are prepared to do hard things.
What makes this case unusual is that everyone from the eyewitness bystanders to the Chauvin jurors, who watched the videos, knew that Chauvin committed murder. It should have been equally obvious to Lane, Kueng and Thao that a fellow officer right next to them was using excessive, deadly force on a handcuffed man lying face down on the ground. If ever there was a case demanding criminal accountability of police officers for failure to intervene, this is it. An acquittal would be a victory for the “inhibitors” and send a message to police that they will not suffer criminal consequences if they fail to intervene, which will set back police reform.
The George Floyd case is not over, and a lot still hangs in the balance.
Gregory J. Wallance is a writer in New York City and a former federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations, where he was a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team that convicted a U.S. senator and six congressmen of bribery. He is currently working on a book about a turning point in the American-Russian relationship. Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.