This essay is my best attempt to resolve my own questions and to answer the questions that I have received from a variety of my constituencies. The thoughts contained within represent my own thoughts and opinions on the matter and do not represent the position of my agency, my employer, or any agency or organization that I am associated with.
The original essay was edited on June 10, 2020 with additional content.
George Floyd should not have died. I want to put that declarative and unequivocal statement up front in this article, because the statements I make later may not be as clear. Use of force incidents are seldom clear cut and perception must be considered. I want to make sure that readers understand that I believe that his death is a horrific injustice and was clearly avoidable. I am sorry for his death at the hands of fellow law enforcement officers and I offer my condolences to his family and loved ones. As a law enforcement officer, trainer, and leader I am deeply concerned that after all the energy and initiatives that we, as a profession, have put in place over the past five years, incidents like this are still occurring far too frequently.
I do not normally comment on use of force incidents before the investigation is concluded. I have been taught from my earliest lessons as a Use of Force Instructor that “The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. [Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)] I am violating my own practice because I believe this act was egregious and the effect on our nation has been so devastating. I have many friends who will be angry with me for taking a position on this case without having the opportunity to review all the available evidence. They’ll criticize me for reaching my conclusions based on just what is publicly available. However, many people have asked me questions, and I feel a sense of obligation to respond.
I feel confident in stating that Mr. Floyd should not have died, not only because, as a trainer, I take exception to the use of a controversial and dangerous neck restraint in the situation shown in the video, but for two additional factors that I do not believe have received enough attention. The first is that at the moment Mr. Floyd was placed under arrest, the arresting officer, the Minneapolis Police Department and the City of Minneapolis became responsible for his care and well-being. Once Mr. Floyd was in police custody, the officers on scene had an obligation to take any and all steps necessary to safeguard his health and provide any necessary medical attention. The second is that as the situation continued to unfold and time continued to pass, all the officers on scene had an “duty to intervene” if they believed that Mr. Floyd was in distress. The following passage is copied from the Minneapolis Police Department’s (MPD) Policy and Procedure Manual:
5-303.01 DUTY TO INTERVENE (07/28/16)
A. Sworn employees have an obligation to protect the public and other employees.
B. It shall be the duty of every sworn employee present at any scene where physical force is being applied to either stop or attempt to stop another sworn employee when force is being inappropriately applied or is no longer required. (emphasis added)
I have been a police officer for twenty-five years. For twenty of those years I have served as a defensive tactics, physical control, and use of force instructor. At various times during these twenty years, I have held instructor and instructor-trainer level certifications from a half-dozen certifying agencies or organizations. I am a certified use of force analyst through the Force Science Research Institute. For the past thirteen years, I have served as the Chief of Police of a mid-sized New England police department. In this capacity, I have reviewed and evaluated hundreds of use of force incidents. With this as my background, I am unable to find anything in the evidence that is currently publicly available that leads me to conclude that the Minneapolis police officers could justify this use of force on Mr. Floyd. Based on the information that I have been able to review, I am unable to reach “reasonable.”
As police officers, we are taught that we are authorized to use force to overcome unlawful resistance in order to regain and maintain control. Beyond that relatively straightforward explanation, we also must consider what our use of force is intended to accomplish. Generally, officers use force to stop an unlawful assault, prevent further injury, effect an arrest, lawfully detain, prevent escape, quell a disturbance, carry out a court order, serve a commitment order, or defend themselves or others. This list is not exhaustive, but it covers most of the circumstances where officers may need to use force. The MPD Policy and Procedure Manual articulates it in this section:
5-303 AUTHORIZED USE OF FORCE (10/16/02) (08/17/07)
Minn. Stat. §609.06 subd. 1 states, “When authorized…except as otherwise provided in subdivision 2, reasonable force may be used upon or toward the person of another without the other’s consent when the following circumstances exist or the actor reasonably believes them to exist:
When used by a public officer or one assisting a public officer under the public officer’s direction:
In effecting a lawful arrest; or
In the execution of legal process; or
In enforcing an order of the court; or
In executing any other duty imposed upon the public officer by law.”
In addition to Minn. Stat. §609.06 sub. 1, MPD policies shall utilize the United States Supreme Court decision in Graham vs Connor as a guideline for reasonable force.
Based on the information available at this point, it is apparent that the officers involved in this arrest and fatal use of force were attempting to accomplish the first objective; that is, “In effecting a lawful arrest.” What is not explicit in that objective, but is certainly implied, is that lawful arrest includes transport from the scene, processing, and charging. I’m uncertain how maintaining a ground hold with an inherently dangerous neck restraint for over eight minutes furthers the objective of effecting a lawful arrest by removing Mr. Floyd from the scene and completing the arrest process.
Police officers are educated, trained, and conditioned that the use of force should never be punitive or retaliatory. The “Duty to Intervene” requirement is a protection against punitive or retaliatory uses of force. It is an acknowledgement that officers are human and may become caught up in emotion and need to rely on their partners to help regulate them and remove them from a use of force incident that has veered off track. It is a duty that all officers must take seriously.
The Statement of Probable Cause filed in support of Officer Chauvin’s arrest details a conversation between the officers involved in the arrest. At one point, Officer Lane asks if they should roll Mr. Floyd onto his side. According to the statement, Chauvin replied, “No, staying put where we got him.” Lane then stated, “I am worried about excited delirium or whatever.” Chauvin reportedly replied, “That’s why we have him on his stomach.”
As a trainer, this conversation, recorded in the Statement of Probable Cause raises three serious concerns for me. The first is that Lane recognized his Duty to Intervene but did not feel empowered to complete it. He did not fulfill his obligation to “stop or attempt to stop” the ongoing use of force. The second is that it points to a clear disconnect in the training that these officers had been provided.
I believe that what Lane was trying to caution Chauvin about was the potential for positional asphyxia. Positional asphyxia is a term that has often been taught to police officers in combination with excited delirium. While positional asphyxia is regarded as an outdated concept and has been refuted by substantial scientific research, the Minneapolis officers may have been trained in it, just as I was. However, if that was the case and they believed there was some health risk to Mr. Floyd, the immediate intervention to prevent respiratory distress is to roll the subject on their side (recovery position) or place them in a seated position, just as Lane requested.
If the officers did possess information that led them to believe that Mr. Floyd might be experiencing “excited delirium,” that is a life-threatening emergency requiring immediate emergency medical intervention. Suspicion of this condition would normally result in an expedited request for Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and a rapid turnover to EMS personnel.
I also have a serious concern about the decision to use that neck restraint technique at all. I need to state outright that I have no direct knowledge of MPD’s defensive tactics or physical control training curriculum. It has been reported that the neck restraint utilized is an authorized MPD technique. Indeed, the MPD Policy and Procedure Manual does authorize two variations of a neck restraint. One, utilizing light pressure is intended to control a subject. The second, utilizing a higher level of pressure is intended to render the subject unconscious. However, all of the defensive tactics programs and systems that I have been trained in are consistent in teaching that when performing a ground control hold, the neck and spine are areas to be avoided, except in the most extreme circumstances and only to overcome the most serious levels of resistance. I don’t believe that maintaining control of a handcuffed subject rises to that severe a degree of risk.
While it is possible that additional evidence or information may be revealed that will indicate a higher degree of threat than has been presented up to this point, I don’t believe that is likely. If something did occur out of camera view that would have led to an additional use of force against Mr. Floyd while attempting to place him in the transport cruiser, it is incredibly unlikely that it was enough of a threat to justify the degree of force utilized.
Over the past week, I have been repeatedly asked how this could have happened and what can be done to prevent something like this from happening again. I wish that I had the answer. Only a dramatic shift in the culture of American law enforcement and the role law enforcement plays within our communities can eliminate the possibility of incidents like this continuing to occur. A shift of that magnitude will require the full efforts of our federal, state, and local governments. That said, I do have some suggestions for interim steps that might start us in what I feel is the right direction.
• Training—The amount and type of training that police officers receive varies greatly not only from state to state, but even within states. The amount of basic and in-service training that most American police officers receive is extremely low. When I had the opportunity to train with my international counterparts, I met officers from some European countries where the basic training requirement is four years and two hours of each of their scheduled duty days consist of physical fitness and physical control training. In Massachusetts, our basic Academy is approximately four months and our in-service requirement is 40 hours per year. The basic level of training that we provide to our officers is not sufficient to equip them for the myriad of situations they face. Officers must be provided with more training in the course of their duties and encouraged to engage in additional training on their own time.
• Recruitment—American law enforcement is paramilitary by nature. Paramilitary organizations attract and recruit people with particular personality types. While this is very useful in many investigative and enforcement circumstances, it may not be as useful in community engagement and negotiation situations. We need to recruit diverse candidates, not only for gender and ethnicity, but also for personality type and experience.
• Duty to Intervene—Officers should be taught from the very beginning of their training of their obligation to intervene when they observe prohibited conduct. Further, they should be provided with leadership development opportunities to provide them with the skills to fulfill that obligation even if the other officer is older, more experienced, or of a higher rank.
• Fair and Impartial Policing and Procedural Justice—All officers should receive initial basic and regular in-service training on Fair and Impartial Policing and the pillars of Procedural Justice. Officers should be educated in implicit bias. They should be exposed to cultures other than their own, particularly those of the communities they police. They should be taught to recognize the historical roots of the distrust and animosity that some communities feel toward law enforcement.
• Six Pillars of 21st Century Policing—All Departments and Agencies should implement the pillars and recommendations of the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The recommendations regarding education, training, transparency, accountability, and community engagement should be emphasized, but all the recommendations should be pursued and implemented.
• Federal Legislation—Many of the gaps and disconnects that lead to continued high-profile use of force incidents and controversies can be traced back to the fact that use of force guidelines and case law are based on federally established standards, but all law enforcement training occurs at the state and local level. For decades, the leading police professional organizations and members across the country have requested that the federal government take the lead in establishing consistent national standards for police recruitment, training and retention. While there have been several half-hearted efforts dating back to the 1970s, these issues continue to be addressed primarily at the state and local level.
Police misconduct and poor performance is as frustrating and disturbing to good, hard-working police officers as it is to angry and frightened residents. No one is as serious and committed to improving policing as police officers. Over the entire history of law enforcement nearly all the important improvements and changes have come from within the profession. Every national police organization has committed to working on each of the above suggestions. We will not be able to accomplish them if our communities do not join us in advocating for the above measures and reforms.
About Michael Wynn
Michael J. Wynn currently serves as the Chief of Police of a mid-sized New England police department. Chief Wynn has been a Police Officer for approximately twenty-five years. As a Police Officer, Chief Wynn has worked in a variety of functions, including: Patrol, Training, SWAT and Internal Affairs. Chief Wynn has served as both a subject matter instructor and Drill Instructor in multiple police academies. He has authored numerous policies and regulations and has overseen hundreds of Use of Force reviews.
Chief Wynn has served as a Use of Force, Defensive Tactics and Firearms Instructor for over twenty years, and is cross-certified under a variety of certifying organizations in defensive tactics, baton, TASER, less-lethal options and special operations tactics. Chief Wynn has presented at numerous seminars and conferences on Use of Force, Supervisory Responsibilities in Use of Force Investigations, and Manner of Mechanism of Injury in Police Use of Force Encounters.
As an officer, Chief Wynn was responsible for the creation of the Department’s full-time Training Unit. Under his direction as an officer and sergeant, the Department’s internal training was expanded to include all required training topics.
While assigned as a Municipal Police Training Council Academy Staff Instructor, Chief Wynn also instructed recruit-level classes in Use of Force, Defensive Tactics, Firearms, and Survival Stress. Chief Wynn is the author of the Municipal Police Institute’s Use of Force for Command curriculum, and has trained dozens of police commanders and supervisors on the appropriate review of Use of Force incidents after the fact.
In 2003, Chief Wynn had the opportunity to serve with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Leadership Fellow with the DEA’s Leadership Development Unit. During this assignment, in addition to his leadership studies and teaching duties, Chief Wynn assisted in the instruction of Basic Agent Trainees in Practical Application and Tactical classes, including Defensive Tactics and Raids. As a result, Chief Wynn had the distinction of being certified as a DEA Tactical Instructor.
In 2011, Chief Wynn earned certification from the Force Science Research Institute as a Certified Force Analyst. In 2013, he was selected by the Anti-Defamation League to participate in the National Counter-Terrorism Seminar, traveling to Israel to explore and study counterterrorism strategies and techniques with Israeli Police and Defense units.
In addition to his law enforcement training, Chief Wynn has spent most of his life as a participant, practitioner, and coach in wrestling, grappling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, recently earning his Purple Belt.
Chief Wynn is the author of Rising Through the Ranks: Leadership Tools and Tactics in Law Enforcement.