MPD head of homicide testifies in murder trial of Derek Chauvin: ‘If your knee is on a person’s neck, that could kill him’

By: - April 2, 2021 2:06 pm

Lt. Richard Zimmerman, testifying Friday in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin.

The head of homicide for the Minneapolis Police Department testified Friday that the use of force by Derek Chauvin and three other police officers to restrain George Floyd was “totally unnecessary.” 

Lt. Richard Zimmerman said once they had Floyd handcuffed and face down on the street, they should have stopped restraining him. Instead, they held him down, with Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, until he lost consciousness and died.

“Pulling him down to the ground face down and putting your knee on a neck for that amount of time is just uncalled for,” he said. “I saw no reason why the officers felt they were in danger, if that’s what they felt, and that’s what they would have to feel to be able to use that kind of force.”

Zimmerman said police officers are trained annually on the use of force, and he’s been trained on it since he started working for the department in 1985. 

But he said he’s never been trained to kneel on the neck of a handcuffed person in the prone position, saying that would be deadly force “because if your knee is on a person’s neck, that could kill him.”

“Once you secure and handcuff a person, you need to get them out of the prone position as soon as possible because it restricts their breathing,” Zimmerman testified. The handcuffs pull their muscles back, constricting their breathing, unless placed on their side or sat up, he said.

Once an officer handcuffs a person, the officer is responsible for their safety and well-being, he said, and the threat level to officers goes “way down.” 

“They’re cuffed — how can they really hurt you?” Zimmerman said.

MPD policy also requires officers to provide care to someone in distress, he said.

Chauvin is on trial for second-degree murder and manslaughter and third-degree murder; the other three officers — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — go on trial in August for aiding and abetting him.

Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, downplayed Zimmerman’s experience with the use of force since he works in the homicide unit and doesn’t have to use force as often as patrol officers. And he noted it wasn’t Zimmerman’s role in the case to review the use of force. 

Nelson got Zimmerman to acknowledge that when “in a fight for your life,” an officer is allowed to use whatever force is reasonable and necessary and to improvise. 

Nelson implied the officers were restraining Floyd while waiting for paramedics who are more capable of dealing with the situation. 

Zimmerman disagreed, saying just because officers are waiting for paramedics doesn’t excuse them of their responsibility to care for the person.

Zimmerman was among 14 members of the MPD who signed a letter in June condemning Chauvin’s actions.

During questioning by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank, Zimmerman said it’s well-known that the prone position is dangerous, and officers have been trained on that repeatedly.

Chauvin was a 20-year veteran and field training officer for MPD.

Zimmerman also testified that he didn’t see the crowd as an “uncontrollable threat,” as Nelson has repeatedly implied during the trial. Officers could have called for backup, he said.

“It doesn’t matter, the crowd,” he said. “As long as they’re not attacking you, the crowd shouldn’t have an effect on you.”

The trial resumes on Monday.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.