Force Expert Calls Chauvin's Neck Pin Excessive At Trial

A use of force expert testified Wednesday that Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer on trial for murder in George Floyd's death, used excessive force when he pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes last May.

Sgt. Jody Stiger of the Los Angeles Police Department gave play-by-play commentary Tuesday and Wednesday on officer body camera footage. He said Chauvin's conduct did not meet the threshold for lawful force, because it was not what "a reasonable officer on the scene" would have done.

The four officers who arrested Floyd last May were acting reasonably when they pushed him to the ground, because, Stiger said, Floyd was "actively resisting arrest." But continuing to hold him there for nine minutes after Floyd stopped resisting, said he was in pain, and lost consciousness was not reasonable, Stiger said.

"My opinion is that the force was excessive," Stiger said. "At the time, Mr. Floyd was in the prone position, he was handcuffed, and he was not trying to resist."

The murder charges against Chauvin became international news last summer, after millions of people viewed a bystander's video of Floyd's arrest. It showed Chauvin pinning Floyd's neck down for about nine minutes, as Floyd — who was suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill — begged him to stop, said he couldn't breathe and eventually lost consciousness.

The image of a Black man gasping for breath under the knee of a white police officer rekindled a nationwide racial justice movement last summer. Protests occurred in every state. Many companies, including law firms, vowed to improve their diversity and inclusion efforts.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Stiger testified as an expert for the prosecution. He helped develop and teach the LAPD's in-service curriculum, and over the course of six years he was responsible for training 3,000 LAPD officers. He also sat on a review board that conducted 2,500 use of force reviews.

Stiger's testimony centered on the standard for use of force set by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1989 Graham v. Connor decision, which found that the 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."

The "reasonable officer" has become something of a character in police misconduct cases, with each side speculating about what this fictional archetype might do. It was referred to frequently as Stiger reviewed police camera footage and critiqued the decisions officers made that Memorial Day.

Stiger said that last May a reasonable officer would have agreed with the decision to push Floyd onto the ground after he'd been "actively resisting" attempts to force him into the back of a squad car.

"He was moving around. He didn't want to get back there," Stiger said. "Numerous times he stated he was afraid, that he'd had COVID before, that he was claustrophobic."

But taking him to the ground wasn't the only option; those four policemen could have deescalated the situation, Stiger said. Officer J. Alexander Kueng had "gained a rapport with Floyd early on," Stiger said, and might have talked him into compliance.

When the officers got Floyd out of the car and had him on his knees, he seemed to calm down, Stiger said. He even thanked them, body camera footage showed.

Then they pushed the handcuffed Floyd onto his stomach. He kicked his legs once, which Stiger identified as an "aggressive action," and "an attempt to possibly kick free from their grasp."

At that point in the video, Chauvin could be heard asking about "the hobble," a technique of binding a suspect's legs. Using that restraint would have been an escalation of force, Stiger told Steven Schleicher, a partner at Maslon LLP working pro bono for the prosecution.

But officers decided not to hobble Floyd. That suggested to Stiger that they could see that Floyd was "starting to comply, and his aggression was starting to cease."

While Chauvin was on top of Floyd, he seemed to be using a "pain compliance" technique on Floyd's hand, a method of either squeezing his fingers and bringing the knuckles together or pushing his wrist into the handcuffs, Stiger said.

That's a technique that officers use "to get a suspect to comply with commands," Stiger said. "As they comply, they're rewarded with a reduction in pain."

Schleicher asked, "What if there's no opportunity for compliance?"

"At that point, it's just pain," Stiger said.

He added that once Floyd was lying prone, "no force should have been used once he was in that position."

Under the Graham standard, there are three main factors for the reasonable officer to consider: the severity of crime, the "immediate threat" the suspect poses and whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or trying to flee.

Stiger said the crime of passing a counterfeit bill was not serious and didn't even merit arrest. He said that when Floyd was prone and handcuffed, he posed no real threat. And once Floyd was in the prone position, he stopped resisting arrest, Stiger said.

On cross-examination, Chauvin's attorney, Eric Nelson of Halberg Criminal Defense, said the reasonableness standard can be subjective. One police department might determine that an instrument or technique is permissible and thus meets the objective reasonableness standard, while another department might not.

"Reasonable minds can differ," Nelson quipped, and Stiger agreed.

Nelson tried to sow more doubt later, asking Stiger if, in his years on the board reviewing Los Angeles police use of force incidents, he and his four fellow board members ever disagreed. Stiger said that did happen, and in those cases, the dissenting officers would have to file a minority report stating why they disagreed.

Nelson also pointed out that to know what the "reasonable officer" would have done, Stiger had to consider the "totality of circumstances." That included the environment last May.

Chauvin, he noted, had been originally dispatched to the scene, but he was dealing with another call, and so a different squad car took the call. Then Chauvin was called there a second time. He likely heard the initial scuffle as Floyd protested going into the back of the cruiser on his radio, Nelson said.

"When Officer Chauvin arrived, he knew some degree of force was being used because of what he heard on dispatch," Nelson said. "He knew that other officers were there. He knew the suspect was possibly intoxicated and was six to six-and-a-half feet tall."

And then, Nelson argued, his client saw that he and two other officers could not get Floyd into the back of the car.

In a use of force situation, Nelson said, officers have to weigh what suspects say against what they do.

"When Mr. Floyd was saying he couldn't breathe, he was actively resisting arrest, using his legs to avoid getting in," he argued. "Three officers were trying to get him into the back of the vehicle."

The environment where all this was happening, Nelson said, was a "busy intersection" where a crowd of "excited" onlookers posed a possible threat.

Nelson also used Stiger's testimony to bring up a point he's made before about "camera perspective bias." While a still from the bystander video appeared to show Chauvin's knee on Floyd's neck, he said, police body camera stills suggested the knee was on Floyd's shoulder.

Stiger agreed that Chauvin seemed to be on "base of the neck."

On redirect, Schleicher pointed out Floyd was at risk of positional asphyxia just from being prone and handcuffed, and additional pressure anywhere on the body heightened risk — something he said Chauvin should have known from his training.


In the afternoon, jurors heard from the team of Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension officers who investigated Floyd's death. The BCA typically investigates "critical incidents," where a police officer harms a civilian.

Special Agent James Reyerson, the lead investigator for the case, said Floyd's car, and the squad car officer tried to force him into were both processed by forensic scientists in May, but a second analysis was done in the winter, at Nelson's request. He asked agents to look for pills, and they found some in both cars.

On cross examination, Nelson showed Reyerson the same body camera stills he'd shown Stiger, and he agreed that it looked as though Chauvin's knee was on Floyd's back, not his neck. But on redirect, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank asked Reyerson to read the timestamps for those photos, revealing they were from not long before EMS arrived on the scene.

"It portrays a time after Mr. Floyd appears to have stopped moving," Frank said, and Reyerson agreed.

Nelson asked both Reyerson and Stiger about a clip from one of the body-worn camera videos where Nelson claimed that Floyd said, "I ate too many drugs." Stiger said he couldn't make out what Floyd had said. Reyerson initially agreed with Nelson, but on redirect, he told Frank it sounded more like Floyd had said, "I ain't do no drugs."

Reyerson also found himself in the middle of a dispute about a liquid that seemed to be trickling down the pavement from Floyd's prone body. Genevieve Hansen, an off-duty firefighter who witnessed Floyd's death, had testified last week that she thought the fluid might be Floyd's urine, a sign his body was in distress. 

Nelson asked Reyerson if it could be condensation from under the squad car, which was running with its air conditioning on. Frank noted on redirect Reyerson that it was a hybrid vehicle, and the battery, not the engine, was likely running. On cross-examination, Nelson noted that Reyerson was "not a mechanic." 

The mystery liquid was likely never identified because it rained before McKenzie Anderson, the BCA's forensic scientist, could get to the crime scene. 

In her testimony Wednesday afternoon, she went through the extensive photographs that she took inside the squad car and in Floyd's vehicle two days after his death. Her pictures captured several white pills in the center console of Floyd's car and the back of the cruiser. She testified that she didn't analyze them at the time because she was told to look for blood and counterfeit bills — both of which she found — and not controlled substances.

During her second review of the cars, she found that the pills in Floyd's car were intact, but the ones on the floor of the cruiser were textured and lacked markings. She found traces of Floyd's saliva on them. 

Breahna Giles, a forensic chemist at the BCA, testified those pills tested contained methamphetamine, and that the more intact tablets in Floyd's car contained both methamphetamine and fentanyl. 

Those pills were weaker than other street drugs, according to Susan Neith, a forensic chemist for NMS Labs, who tested their potency. She found less than 1% fentanyl in all the pills, which is typical of street drugs, she said. But the tablets contained less than 2.9% methamphetamine, which she said is low.

"The majority of the time, I see 90-100% methamphetamine," she said.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

Update: This story had been updated to include the testimony of Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigators and a lab chemist.


For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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