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Why Are Cops Testifying Against Derek Chauvin?

Three Minneapolis cops have taken the stand against Derek Chauvin in his trial for the murder of George Floyd. Is the “thin blue line” cracking, or is something else afoot?

Scott Cooper

April 3, 2021
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You could join liberals in celebrating the members of the Minneapolis police force who have testified for the prosecution in the Derek Chauvin murder trial in the past two days, or you could see right through it to what they’re really up to.

On Thursday, a retired Minneapolis police officer who was a shift supervisor when Chauvin murdered George Floyd and received a call about the arrest from a concerned 911 dispatcher, became the first cop to desert Chauvin on the stand. Sgt. David Ploeger said that once Floyd was no longer offering any resistance, the cops “could’ve ended the restraint.” And he also revealed to jurors that Chauvin did not immediately admit to him that he’d put his knee on Floyd’s neck. It was only when they were at the hospital where Floyd had been taken that Chauvin made that admission — and didn’t say for how long.

Instead, Chauvin told him at the scene that Floyd had “suffered a medical emergency and an ambulance was called.”

Ploeger also told the court that Minneapolis police department policy is to roll people on their side “so they can breathe easier” after they’ve been restrained in the prone position.

First up yesterday was Sgt. Jon Edwards, who was sent to Cup Foods — where George Floyd had been shopping just before he was killed — to secure the crime scene. He described how he secured the scene and that he had to tell two of the other cops involved in the killing, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, to activate their body cameras, which weren’t on. 

Lt. Richard Zimmerman, who leads the Minneapolis homicide unit and is the longest-serving cop in the city, followed Edwards. He said Chauvin had violated department policy. “Pulling [Floyd] down to the ground face down and putting your knee on a neck for that amount of time, it’s just uncalled for.” Zimmerman had been one of 14 veteran cops who published a public letter last June condemning Chauvin’s actions, stating, “This is not who we are.”

Chauvin’s restraint of Floyd should have “absolutely” stopped once Floyd was handcuffed on the ground, Zimmerman testified. He insisted that such action is not part of police department training. Asked by the prosecutor to describe the “level” of force Chauvin used, he said it was “deadly force,” saying, “If your knee is on a person’s neck, that could kill them.” 

Once someone is handcuffed, Zimmerman said, “they are not a threat to you at that point” and it is an obligation of the police officer to reduce the amount of force being used. Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, argued instead that cops can use “improvisation” for “whatever force is reasonable and necessary” if a cop is “in a fight for [his] life.” Zimmerman agreed. But then Nelson then tried to get Zimmerman to agree that this applied to Floyd, and that despite lying face down on the ground, handcuffed, and with no pulse he might spring back to life and threaten Chauvin’s life.

Asked by Nelson whether he saw in the video of Floyd’s killing any need for Chauvin to improvise, Zimmerman said, “I did not.”

Nelson also argued that cops must sometimes restrain people because they are “holding for EMS” — that is, waiting for the arrival of paramedics — who “are more capable to deal with whatever the situation is.”

Zimmerman was having none of that argument. He declared that Chauvin and the other cops present “absolutely” had an obligation themselves to provide medical intervention as soon as it was necessary. As we know, the cops rejected the offer of help from an off-duty Minneapolis firefighter/EMT who came upon the scene.

So, what has led to this cracking of the “thin blue line” that typically has cops circling the wagons, getting their “stories straight” in advance of investigations, defending each other, and shouting that an attack on one cop is an attack on every cop?

The murder of George Floyd reignited the Black Lives Matter movement. It led to what has been called the largest protest movement in U.S. history, and spread across the globe. It brought people into the streets demanding everything from reforms to defunding police departments and abolishing them altogether. The cops and the politicians who keep them in the business of brutally repressing the working class and especially people of color see an opportunity here. Throw Chauvin to the “wolves.” Swear under oath that he is, in fact, the “bad apple” — and that he cannot be allowed to “spoil the barrel” full of all the other cops.

In May 2020, on CNN’s State of the Union, Donald Trump’s national security adviser spelled out this approach. Robert O’Brien said:

There are some bad apples in there. And there are some cops that are racist. And there are cops that are — maybe don’t have the right training. And there are some that are just bad cops. And they need to be rooted out, because there’s a few bad apples that are giving law enforcement a terrible name.

Joe Biden has said the same sort of thing. In the presidential debate last October 20, he was asked about race and policing.

The vast majority of police officers are good, decent, honorable men and women. They risk their lives every day to take care of us. But there are some bad apples and when they find them, they have to be sorted out. They have to be held accountable.

Derek Chauvin is a “bad apple” handed to the rulers on a silver platter. They have no intention of defunding the police, let alone abolishing the forces that serve their interests and protect their system of exploitation. They’ll gladly toss that one bad apple if that’s what it takes to protect the barrel that is filled to the brim with Derek Chauvins, armed and dangerous and ready to kill at the drop of an alleged $20 counterfeit bill. Of course, as the trial continues there are still cops marauding throughout the United States.

This past week has seen a police shooting in Los Angeles nearly every day. It’s business as usual, but perhaps it’s also a message from rank-and-file cops, even more trigger happy, incensed at Chauvin even being charged. Rest assured that rank-and-file cops are unlikely to agree with this approach of abandoning Chauvin; they’d rather fight it out. Whatever the outcome of the trial, people will be in the streets again, and so will the cops — using their guns to intimidate and attack.

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Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.

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