The FBI and Minnesota law enforcement authorities are investigating the arrest of a black man who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee, in an episode that was recorded on video by a bystander and denounced by the mayor of Minneapolis on Tuesday.
After the graphic video circulated widely on social media, the mayor said in the afternoon that four police officers had been fired. He identified the victim as George Floyd.
Floyd, 46, a resident of St. Louis Park, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb, was pronounced dead at 9:25 p.m. Monday at Hennepin County Medical Center, according to the medical examiner.
It could take at least three weeks to determine the cause and manner of Floyd’s death, county officials said.
The arrest took place Monday evening, the Minneapolis Police Department said in a statement, after officers responded to a call about a man suspected of forgery. The police said the man, was found sitting on top of a blue car and “appeared to be under the influence.”
“He was ordered to step from his car,” the department’s statement said. “After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.”
The statement said that officers called for an ambulance and that the man was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center, “where he died a short time later.”
On Tuesday morning, without referring to the video recorded by a bystander, the police updated a statement, titled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction,” that said additional information had “been made available” and that the FBI was joining the investigation.
On Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis tweeted that the four responding officers involved in the case had been terminated. “This is the right call,” he said.
The bystander video shows a white Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee into a black man’s neck during an arrest, as the man repeatedly says “I can’t breathe” and “please I can’t breathe.”
As the video spread on social media on Monday night, the arrest quickly drew comparisons to the case of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died in New York police custody in 2014, after an officer held him in a chokehold. Garner’s repeated plea of “I can’t breathe” – also recorded by a cellphone – became a rallying cry at demonstrations against police misconduct around the country.
“Being black in America should not be a death sentence,” Frey said in a statement Tuesday. “For five minutes, we watched a white officer press his knee into a black man’s neck. Five minutes.”
The video recorded in Minneapolis shows that, after a few minutes, the man, lying face down in the street with his hands cuffed behind his back, becomes silent and motionless; the officer continues to pin the man to the pavement with his knee.
Bystanders plead and curse, begging the officer to stop and telling him the man’s nose is bleeding. Another officer faces the people gathered on the sidewalk. An ambulance medic arrives and, reaching under the officer’s knee, feels for a pulse on the man’s neck.
The medic turns away, and a stretcher is wheeled over. The arrested man is then rolled onto the stretcher, loaded into an ambulance and taken away.
Jovanni Thunstrom, who employed Floyd as a bouncer at his restaurant, Conga Latin Bistro, said in an interview Tuesday that he was in disbelief when he saw the video.
“It’s hard to believe a police officer would do that,” said Thunstrom, who was also Floyd’s landlord. “He wasn’t a threat to justify excessive force used on him.”
Thunstrom said that Floyd had become a friend during the five years that he worked for him and the four years that he rented a duplex unit from him in St. Louis Park.
“No one had nothing bad to say about him,” he said. “They’re all are shocked he’s dead. He never caused a fight or was rude to people.”
Frey said Tuesday that he did not know how the initial police statement, describing a “medical incident,” had come to be written, but he said he wanted to be “absolutely as transparent as possible.”
“It’s the kind of thing where you don’t hide from the truth, you lean into it because our city is going to be better off for it, no matter how ugly, awful it is,” he said. “If it points out the institutional racism that we are still working through right now, well good – it means that we’ve got a lot of work to go.”
The video did not show what had happened before the officer pinned the man to the ground by his neck. Chief Medaria Arradondo of the Minneapolis Police Department said at a news conference Tuesday that he had received information the night before that led him to deem it “necessary to contact the special agent in charge of the Minneapolis bureau of the FBI.”
He said he had asked the agency to investigate and declined to comment on what information he had received.
The FBI is conducting a federal civil rights investigation, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said in a statement. The state bureau also said that it was conducting its own investigation at the request of the Police Department, and that it would release its findings to the Hennepin County district attorney’s office.
The names of the officers will be released after interviews, it said.
Benjamin L. Crump, a Tallahassee, Florida, lawyer who has risen to prominence by taking on similar cases, said he had been retained to represent Floyd’s family. “This abusive, excessive and inhumane use of force cost the life of a man who was being detained by the police for questioning about a nonviolent charge,” Crump said in a statement.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., called in a statement for a “complete and thorough” investigation into the encounter, which she described as “another horrifying and gut-wrenching instance of an African-American man dying.”
In a separate statement, John Gordon, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, called the video “horrifying” and said it underscored the immediate need for a thorough, fair and transparent investigation into the case, he said, and “the officers involved – not just the perpetrator, but also those who stood by and did nothing – must be held accountable.”
Tim Walz, the governor of Minnesota, called the episode “sickening.”
“We will get answers and seek justice,” he said.
Similar high-profile cases have generated large protests and given rise to a national debate over police conduct toward black people, as happened in 2016 after an African American man, Philando Castile, was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic stop in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, was later acquitted of second-degree manslaughter and of endangering safety by discharging a firearm in the shooting.
“If you’re sad, I get it,” Frey said at the news conference Tuesday, with a reminder about the risks of the coronavirus. “If you’re angry, that makes complete sense. If you feel the need to protest, of course, we want to make sure that people are able to express themselves.”
He described the event on Monday night as “awful” and “traumatic.”
“When you hear someone calling for help, you’re supposed to help,” he said. “This officer failed in the most basic, human sense. All I keep coming back to is this: This man should not have died.”
The Police Department’s statement said that no weapons had been and that the officers’ body cameras were recording. Frey said that he had seen the video “taken and posted by a civilian” but not the body camera footage.
In a Facebook event on Tuesday afternoon, Frey said he understood and supported the rights of people who would protest the episode, but asked that protesters wear masks and respect social distancing procedures.
“I encourage people to voice their opinions and anger, their heartbreak and their sadness because undoubtedly it will be there,” he said.
Thunstrom, the restaurant owner, said that the last time he had heard from Floyd was when he paid his rent last week and told him that he was looking for a job. The restaurant where Floyd worked has been closed to on-site dining since March because of the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
“I hope something changes, because I lost a friend,” Thunstrom said.