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On the morning of May 26, 2020, Minnesota police spokesman John Elder sent a brief press release regarding a death that had occurred the prior evening.
Under the heading “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction,” the statement — which has since been deleted from the department’s website — said that “on Monday evening, shortly after 8:00 p.m., officers from the Minneapolis Police Department responded to the 3700 block of Chicago Avenue South on a report of a forgery in progress. Officers were advised that the suspect was sitting on top of a blue car and appeared to be under the influence.
“Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car,” it continued. “He was ordered to step from his car. 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. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”
“No officers were injured in the incident,” the statement added.
Hours after that initial statement was released, bystander videos (including from then-17-year-old Darnella Frazier) and security footage from the scene of the incident began to circulate online, revealing crucial details omitted by the police department’s original version of events.
In particular, the video footage seemed to clearly show that the “medical distress” the deceased man — later identified as George Floyd — appeared to be suffering from what had been caused by Officer Derek Chauvin, who could be seen pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while Floyd repeatedly said, “Please, I can’t breathe.” Video footage also showed two other officers holding Floyd by his legs while a fourth stood by. Bystanders could be heard pleading with officers to release Floyd, who remained pinned under Chauvin’s knee even after he appeared to lose consciousness.
On Tuesday, Chauvin was convicted on all three charges of which he was accused: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He was remanded into custody with sentencing to come in eight weeks.
If not for the videos that circulated after that initial police statement was released last May, the actions of Chauvin and the other officers on the scene that day may have never been called into question. It’s not entirely clear whether Minneapolis police would have provided the details shown in the bystander footage.
“It is deeply concerning that the information initially circulated by the Minneapolis Police Department early Tuesday morning did not fully reflect the horrifying circumstances surrounding George Floyd’s death,” Council Member Jeremy Schroeder said at the time. “The original news release did not in my view accurately convey the facts or the role of the officers in this tragedy.”
In an interview with the Star Tribune the night following Floyd’s death, Elder stated, “We try very hard to get information out as quickly as possible that is wholly honest and correct. There is no way I’m going to lie about a situation that is on body camera and is going to prove this department to be disingenuous.”
As the disturbing videos of the moments leading up to Floyd’s death quickly began to go viral, sparking protests throughout Minneapolis and subsequently the nation and world, the police department quickly changed its messaging around the incident. All four officers involved were fired that same day, and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo tried to distance himself from the original narrative, saying days later that he didn’t know where the information in that first press release came from.
“I’m committed as we move forward that we will do better to make sure we are getting as much factual information out in a timely manner as we can,” Arradondo said.
The video soon prompted condemnation and calls for accountability from several officials at the local, state and federal levels, including Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
“The lack of humanity in this disturbing video is sickening,” Minneapolis Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement, promising that “we will get answers and seek justice.”
The National Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement that week saying, “There is no doubt that this incident has diminished the trust and respect our communities have for the men and women of law enforcement.”
Also among the first prominent figures to speak out in response to the video of Floyd’s death was then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, who praised the firing of the officers involved and urged the FBI to investigate in a tweet posted on May 26, 2020.
“George Floyd deserved better and his family deserves justice,” Biden tweeted at the time. “His life mattered.”
Nearly a year later, now-President Biden watched from the White House as Chauvin received his guilty verdict. In an address to the nation Tuesday evening, Biden said the jury’s ruling "can be a moment of significant change" for the country in addressing systemic racism.
The other three officers involved in Floyd’s death — Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng — are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. Their trial begins on Aug. 23.
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