George Floyd killing: Emotional testimony as ex-officer takes the stand

Group of people wearing face masks walk into a building.
Former Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao in July 2020, entering the Hennepin County Courthouse with his attorneys before a motions hearing in Minneapolis. Thao testified in federal court, the first time one of the officers involved in George Floyd's death has spoken publicly about their perception of what happened.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Updated 6 p.m.

The ex-Minneapolis police officer who ran crowd control at the scene of George Floyd’s killing told a federal jury Tuesday he assumed his fellow officers were attending to Floyd’s medical needs as he focused on keeping back bystanders.

In sometimes emotional testimony, Tou Thao spoke to his actions on May 25, 2020, saying he’d never seen someone struggle as much as Floyd to stay out of a police car.

Thao and ex-officers J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane are charged with failing to provide Floyd medical aid. Thao and Kueng are also charged with failing to intervene with their colleague Derek Chauvin’s use of force on Floyd. 

In April, Chauvin was found guilty of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s killing while in police custody. Chauvin kept his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as the man lay handcuffed and face down on the pavement, pleading that he couldn’t breathe.

J. Alexander Kueng, from left, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao
This combination of photos provided by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office in Minnesota shows (from left) J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao.
Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via AP

In the federal trial Tuesday, Thao testified that had he been one of the officers restraining Floyd, he would have been assessing Floyd’s medical condition.

Thao said he didn’t see any officers doing CPR on Floyd, which he said told him that Floyd’s heart was still beating. ”If they’re not doing CPR, I assume he’s still breathing and fine,” Thao said. 

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Explaining how he and Chauvin came to the scene, Thao told jurors that he and Chauvin were sitting down to a meal at the precinct when they were dispatched to 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, which Thao referred to as a “Bloods gang hangout.”

After they arrived outside the Cup Foods store, Thao said he saw the officers trying to force Floyd into the back of a squad and believed Floyd “was obviously under the influence of some type of drugs,” given the “beads of sweat on his head.” Floyd, he added, was demonstrating “superhuman strength, or more strength than three officers could handle.”

He said he later escalated the call for an ambulance because he believed Floyd was suffering from “excited delirium” and he was concerned about the growing crowd.

Defense attorney Robert Paule asked Thao about his childhood, which Thao testified he spent in north Minneapolis and Fridley. Thao said his family was poor, and that they’d usually get one meal a day when they weren’t in school.

Over prosecution objections, Thao also told jurors that he’d known he wanted to be a police officer since he was a child. His first interaction with police came after his father pulled a gun and threatened he and his family’s life.

He choked up repeatedly as he talked about how he accompanied the officers who arrested his father, and that the two days his father was in jail “were the most peaceful in my childhood.” 

Paule showed Thao photos of Minneapolis police trainings where officers used their knees to restrain people. Thao testified that he routinely had used his knees to restrain people during his MPD training and had never been corrected by a training officer.

Former police officer Caree Harper, now a civil rights attorney in southern California who is not involved in this case, said she’s skeptical that the defense’s focus on training might be convincing to jurors. 

“There is no amount of training that is going to teach a person to be a human being. If you don’t recognize you’re killing someone and they’re foaming at the mouth and they’re dying in front of you should not be in the uniform,” Harper said.

Defense attorneys are also arguing that the other two defendants — Kueng and Lane — were rookies in their first week on the job and had to defer to Chauvin, who was their training officer. Lane can be heard on body camera video twice asking Chauvin if they should reposition Floyd on his side, but the senior officer rebuffs him. 

Kenyen Brown, a former U.S. Attorney for the southern district of Alabama, said this just-following-orders argument could also be a tough sell.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable for an officer that observes another officer engaging in  unconstitutional acts to say ‘hey, I’m a rookie,’” Brown said. “He’s got the training. He has an independent obligation to act, to intervene, to render medical aid.”

The biggest hurdle for the defense, Brown said, is the sheer length of time that Chauvin pinned Floyd to the ground. Brown said Kueng, Lane and Thao had minutes, not seconds, to determine that Chauvin’s actions were wrong and to stop him from killing George Floyd.

Court is adjourned for Tuesday. The other two officers, Kueng and Lane, are also expected to testify.

Thao, Lane and Kueng also face state charges of aiding and abetting Floyd’s killing.

‘He just looked defeated’

The prosecution’s case wrapped up Monday afternoon with testimony from Darnella Frazier, the teenager who filmed Floyd’s killing. That footage went viral and sparked protests across the globe and unrest in the Twin Cities. 

Frazier had accompanied her young cousin to Cup Foods when she saw Floyd. 

“I saw officers, and a man on the ground saying ‘I can’t breathe,’” Frazier said. “He just looked defeated.” 

George Floyd Officers Civil Rights
In this image from a police body camera, bystanders including Darnella Frazier (third from right filming) witness as then Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on George Floyd's neck for several minutes, killing Floyd on May 25, 2020.
Minneapolis Police Department via AP 2020

Frazier testified that she sent her cousin inside the store alone so her cousin wouldn’t have to witness it. Then Frazier started recording on her phone. She testified that she asked police at the scene: “How long do you have to hold him down when he says he can’t breathe?”

Under cross-examination by defense attorney Earl Gray, Frazier insisted that she couldn’t remember when the ambulance left the scene or when she started walking home.

Prosecutors also called use-of-force expert Timothy Longo to the stand Monday. Unlike most expert witnesses, Longo testified that he had declined to be paid for his testimony, although the judge wouldn’t let him specify why he made that decision.  

Longo, a former Baltimore Police Department colonel and current vice president of security at the University of Virginia, testified that the three defendants had not complied with acceptable police practices in their conduct on May 25. He said they should have both intervened with Chauvin and provided medical aid to Floyd. 

Gray pressed Longo on whether Lane, Gray’s client, should have “picked Mr. Chauvin up, thrown him off Mr. Floyd?”

Longo said someone should have taken action: “No one asked Chauvin to get his knee off Mr. Floyd’s neck.” 

A screen grab of a police bodycam.
This image from video shows then-Minneapolis police officers Thomas Lane (left) and J. Alexander Kueng (right) escorting George Floyd (center) to a police vehicle outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis, on May 25, 2020.
Court TV via AP file

MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this story.