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In The Death Of George Floyd, Perception Is Reality

George Floyd

Nationwide outcry over the needless death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement officers recalls a police incident from several decades prior, concerning a young man named James Mincey Jr.

On the evening of March 22, 1982, Mincey, a troubled 20-year-old with a violent criminal past, led two officers on a brief pursuit that ended with citations for speeding and a cracked windshield. Later that night, he was chased home by two other officers, who had noticed the cracked windshield and, not knowing other officers had already addressed it, attempted another stop.

As recounted by reporter Lou Cannon, the chase ended in the driveway of Mincey’s Lake View Terrace home, where he lived with his parents. Getting out of his car, Mincey challenged the officers to arrest him. When they tried, Mincey resisted. The officers answered with mace and radioed for back-up. The incident eventually involved 10 officers and a helicopter, with Mincey handcuffed with his hands in front on him.

When the officers attempted to re-handcuff him with his hands behind his back, Mincey fought back, leading another prolonged, violent attempt at arrest. An officer applied a carotid artery hold to Mincey, wherein pressure is applied to said arteries to restrict blood flow to the brain and induce graduated unconsciousness to facilitate arrest (like a “sleeper hold”). Eventually, Mincey’s hands were cuffed behind him, leg restraints were applied, and he was placed in the back of the patrol car for a ride to a local hospital for a check-up. At this point, Mincey was reportedly conscious.

Upon arrival, Mincey lost consciousness and went into distress. After two weeks in a coma, Mincey died April 5. His cause of death? Blunt-force trauma to the neck, implicating the chokehold. No charges were filed against the officers, however, as there was no evidence they had employed more force than was necessary to subdue Mincey.

Questions remain to this day surrounding his death, specifically whether the carotid hold was applied for too long. Estimates range from 20 to 30 seconds, but, as prescribers of the move explain, a properly applied hold ought to induce unconsciousness in seven to 10 seconds and, when correctly employed, does not restrict one’s ability to breathe.

The case was a watershed for the city and its police department. As reported in 1993, Mincey’s death was the 16th in seven years as a result of the carotid hold. His was also the 12th death of a black person at the hands of police due to the employment of this technique, dubious for an agency trying to move past a history that included brutality and racism. After Donald Ray Wilson, another black man, was killed July 21 the same year after the same move was employed on him, the LAPD banned the carotid hold.

Police Officers Steal the Life of George Floyd

The Mincey incident is instructive considering the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, in police custody on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.

Caught on video, a white officer is seen, for nearly nine minutes, pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck as Floyd lies prone and handcuffed on the pavement. Despite pleas from both Floyd and bystanders, the officer refuses to let up. Eventually, Floyd goes unconscious and is taken to the hospital, where he is later pronounced dead.

Apparently, kneeling on a suspect’s neck is permitted as part of the Minneapolis Police Department’s use-of-force policy. Like Mincey, the central issue appears to be the length of time the officer applied the move. University of Pittsburgh Professor David Harris is quoted as saying Floyd was under control and not fighting, and therefore it was not necessary to continue kneeling on his neck.

Former police chief and use-of-force expert Andrew Scott described the incident as “a combination of not being trained properly or disregarding their training. He couldn’t move. He was telling them he couldn’t breathe, and they ignored him. I can’t even describe it. It was difficult to watch.”

Greg Friese of echoed these same concerns, saying, “This incident transitioned from a ‘man resisting arrest’ to a ‘man down’ without any perceivable change in tactics.”

This last point is especially important, since perception is what the public uses in judging whether an officer has exercised his powers prudently. As Friese explains, “Kneeling on the head/neck of a person complaining ‘I can’t breathe’ isn’t a treatment for respiratory distress. Don’t make the actual problem or the perception of the problem worse” (emphasis added).

The apparent indifference to Floyd’s well-being is what makes the incident so troublesome. Even if, as retired Chief Joel Shults explained, Floyd was still resisting in subtle fashion not easily seen by bystanders or on video, the optics of four officers holding Floyd in handcuffs and seemingly contributing to his death following a relatively minor criminal offense (counterfeiting) is hard to overcome. Resisting the urge to cast judgment before having all the facts must be balanced against the entirely reasonable expectation that police should treat those in custody with due regard for their welfare.

Justice Depends on Facts, Not Perceptions

Will Floyd’s death lead to changes as did Mincey’s? The four officers were fired the day after the Floyd incident, suggesting tolerance for in-custody deaths has dropped considerably, at least for the Minneapolis Police Department. Videos of police interactions nationwide have not only revealed the realities faced by law enforcement daily but have also made it more difficult for agencies to explain away controversy or provide cover for their officers.

The Minneapolis Police Department may have no choice but to severely restrict use of or entirely eliminate kneeling on a suspect’s neck as a permissible means of suspect control. Whether the move actually led to Floyd’s death is beside the point; the department will seek to avoid another public relations nightmare where an officer is seen doing something associated with the death of a black man in police custody.

Of course, nothing would send a message quite the same as the officers being convicted of murder. The officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, and the other three officers have been charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin’s alleged crimes.

But finding the officers guilty depends on facts, not perceptions. With riots in Minneapolis and President Donald Trump placing pressure on prosecutors to deliver justice, the process will be fraught with tension. Unless incontrovertible evidence exists that all four officers murdered Floyd, the outcome is likely to satisfy few, if any.

Beware of Unintended Consequences

Finally, all should understand the potential for unintended consequences. What seem like necessary changes sometimes result in even greater catastrophe down the road. When the LAPD banned the carotid hold in 1982, officers resorted to using the side-handled, metal PR-24 baton and kicking as their nonlethal weapons of choice to induce compliance. Chief Daryl Gates warned that such methods were guaranteed to “result in injury in almost every case,” whereas properly administered carotid holds would not.

The results spoke for themselves. As violent crime in the city escalated due to the crack epidemic, use-of-force incidents involving the metal baton increased, resulting in millions of dollars in awards and settlements stemming from lawsuits. Injuries and reports of police brutality increased, culminating in an infamous incident just after midnight on March 3, 1991, in the same area where the Mincey arrest had occurred nine years earlier.

Caught on home video, a black man was seen being beaten by LAPD officers, setting off a media and social firestorm, engulfing one of America’s cities in a deadly five-day riot, the consequences of which are still feeling today.

The man’s name? Rodney King.