“Get Off His F***ing Neck!”: Where Do We Place the Blame?

May 29, 2020

“Get off his f***ing neck!”

My wife heard me yell the unedited version of that sentence at least a dozen times the other night.

I was watching the now infamously brutal cell phone video taken in Minneapolis. It showed a police officer who had his left knee positioned squarely on the neck of George Floyd as the man laid face down and cuffed behind his back. For well over seven minutes, the officer is seen kneeling on and crouched over Mr. Floyd, whose head was turned to his right towards a growing group of outraged individuals. 

Mr. Floyd was in pain and struggling—it was obvious to anyone watching. With a grimace on his face, he repeated “I can’t breathe” over and over again through gasps of air. The crowd responded by pleading, almost in unison, for the officer to take his knee off the man’s neck.

Undeterred, he maintained his position, his knee still pressed on the neck of George Floyd. While this was taking place, another officer standing and facing the crowd, continuously advised the ever-increasing throng to “stand back.”

The onlookers, while emotional, were not acting unreasonably or physically interfering with the officers. At first (and for the better part of over five minutes), they were simply pleading with the officers to recognize the medical distress from which Mr. Floyd was obviously suffering.

Suddenly, it appeared as though Floyd passed out. At that point, the onlookers’ requests and concern became more insistent, more animated, and more urgent. 

A woman who identified herself as a current Minneapolis firefighter demanded that the officers check Mr. Floyd’s pulse. Another man pleaded with the officer standing in front of him to do the same thing: “Check his pulse!” 

“Don’t do drugs,” the officer replied with more than a hint of sarcasm.

His cynicism immediately escalated the emotions of the pleading man as well as others in the now frantic crowd. Anger towards the officers swelled.  Even so, the requests for the officer to remove his knee and to check his pulse were completely ignored for what seemed like (when watching the video) a lifetime.

Finally, medics arrived. Still handcuffed behind his back, Floyd was rolled over—seemingly unconscious—and placed on a stretcher. He was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

What? Why?

I woke up the other morning to 17 text messages in a single thread. The thread included six of my Calibre Press national instructors—all seasoned officers. Several are commanders or chiefs from all around the country.

I read the last text first.

“All three should have seen his behavior and stopped it. Realized there was a medical emergency. All three should be held accountable. This is bad.”

The previous few messages voiced the same type of attitude, concern, and opinion about a video I had not yet seen.

So, I scrolled up, found it, and hit play.

I was stunned, watching in almost utter disbelief. The physical agitation caused me to readjust in my bed, trying to find some comfort where comfort could not be found.

I repeatedly asked myself, “What the hell am I looking at? What don’t I know? Who is this guy on the ground? What did he do? Why does the officer have his knee on the man’s neck and spine?”

These questions raced through my mind over and over as I became more disturbed, confused, and eventually angry. “Get off his fucking neck!” I said out loud as I stood up from my bed, holding the phone in my right hand.

As the story unfolded, I contacted several of our instructors and scoured the web. My mood became one of, as I tried to describe it to my wife, despair.

A man died, and he apparently died for no reason.

Judgment and Blame

This is a tough article to write. Not that my discomfort matters at all; a man is dead and a city is now in chaos.

I’ve been in law enforcement for almost 40 years now and have been training for just shy of 30. When I do my best to objectively explain use-of-force events captured on video—applying the science of human performance and the reality of stress to clarify the complexities of a violent encounter—I often take heat from those who always want to blame the police and place evil intent on their behavior.

On the other side of the coin, when I point out unprofessional behavior exhibited by law enforcement, I take similar criticism from fellow officers.

People see what they want to see. They often view reality through the lens of an agenda or a true belief that they hold in their hearts. Facts, according to a popular Harvard study, do little to change minds. And I’ve been accused of using stats too often when I’m making my arguments with family and friends—especially according to one daughter in particular.

I also always advise people to wait for the complete set of facts before passing judgment on an event, an individual, or an entire profession.

Well, I’m breaking away from my own advice today.

I can’t see any excuse for the tactics and behavior which are clearly shown in this video. None! Not from any quarter of training, decency, or common sense.

So, what the hell happened and why?

Many instantly pointed to systemic issues such as racism and violence within the profession. And why wouldn’t they when they see this? A white cop on top of a black man, seemingly callous to his pleas while clearly causing unnecessary and unjustified pain for nearly ten minutes—all while another officer seems to care so little about the injustice being committed right behind him.

Still, kneejerk reactions to this horrific video such as strictly blaming racism for the actions of the officer are shots that are considerably off the mark. And that’s unfortunate, because these types of reactions distract from the systemic problems we certainly do have in law enforcement.

Yes, there is a sordid history in some—and I’ll repeat, some—agencies over the course of this country’s lifetime when it comes to race. 

That is beyond contestation.

What is also beyond contestation is that the vast majority of people who choose law enforcement as a profession do so to help their communities. They have a desire to be involved and willingly risk their lives for the benefit of others. 

Why do they want to do that? It’s hard to explain to those who don’t have the same desire. It’s impossible to explain to those who want to hate cops.

Suffice it to say, those who put on a uniform realize that they are agreeing to risk their lives for strangers. And they do it all the time.

All the time.

So, when we in law enforcement see something like this unjust use of force in Minneapolis, we are appalled and sickened as is everyone else.  Case in point the dozens of text messages and emails I received from officers around the country expressing disgust at the act and dismay for what will inevitably be a schism between the police and some members of the community.

Cultural Deficiencies: Training and Leadership

I’ve written about it before and talk about it in each and every one of our seminars.

In way too many bureaucratic law enforcement systems, the true problems lie in our lack of commitment to reality training and the ways we fail to lead our personnel.

I’d venture to guess that the officer in Minneapolis was never, ever taught to put his knee on a subject’s spine or neck.

Never. It’s something that is known. It’s common sense.

We have an entire section devoted to it in Chapter Eight of our book Street Survival II: Tactics for Deadly Force Encounters. We emphasize the need to avoid such behavior with a prominent, all-capitalized sentence:

“Once again in using any approach to control, including the three-point prone, DO NOT PUT YOUR KNEE ON THE SUSPECT’S NECK OR SPINE!

So, why did he do it? Well, I’d also venture to guess that he received very limited amounts of training in control tactics.

The majority of agencies do little more than once-a-year, check-the-box-so-we-can-say-we-did-it types of control tactics training.  Throw 15 knee strikes, do 20 straight-arm-bar takedowns, swing the baton, prove they know how to take out their taser, sign the book, and the system says, “See you again in 365 days or so.”

Agencies do very little (if any) actual tactical training. A few do, sure, but most don’t. They simply can’t, and it’s usually due to severe manpower shortages and budget constraints. This is the true historical piece of systemic nonfeasance: the failure to adequately train law enforcement officers.

Think I’m exaggerating? Think again.

Calibre Press conducted a survey on that exact subject several years ago.

For whatever reasons, virtually no department in the country trains its officers adequately enough to develop any sort of procedural (muscle) memory when it comes to controlling another human being. They get little to no true training about what happens to the brain and body when experiencing acute stress.

So, what then will an officer rely on during a force encounter out on the street? Too often, nothing more than reptilian instincts coupled with a dash of primitive anger and sometimes—as we all saw in this case—a serious lack of common sense.

Now add a deficiency of true leadership. Uninvolved supervisors who aren’t themselves educated to effectively coach, counsel, train, and discipline line-level personnel.  Unabated by true first-line counsel, poor habits and unprofessional behavior flourishes.  Disreputable officers thrive.

First-line supervisors need to recognize immature emotions as well as patterns of poor decisions and tactics, especially when it comes to uses of force.  But to do that, they need to be involved with those in their charge. Out on the street and regularly engaged.

Finally, I want to point out one more disastrous systemic and cultural reality —something we discuss in our Calibre Seminars: The unwritten rule that says officers will not step in when they witness the improper behavior of other officers.

It is imperative that police managers create organizational cultures which emphatically teach, encourage, advocate, practice, and demand the interruption and calming of unprofessional behavior! This must be part of each and every agency’s DNA.

There are no Words

What happened in Minneapolis is exceptionally difficult to watch. It was also tactically unsound, seemingly unjustified and unquestionably avoidable. 

The officer who put his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck has been charged with 3rd degree murder. Three others who on scene were quickly fired.

But is that it? Are the officers the only ones who should take the totality of responsibility for what happened and why?

The leaders of all police agencies, and the politicians to which they report, must make a commitment beyond punishing individual officers when events like these are on public display and incite painful reactions. They must take responsibility for, admit to, and address the true ills that create the opportunity for such unprofessional behavior. 

Responsibility cannot solely fall on the shoulders of the individual men and women who dedicate and risk their lives. 

To clarify, I’m not in any way excusing the behavior of the officers in this particular case. Their actions are egregious and shocking. It’s an embarrassment for those in the profession, and it’s devastating to Mr. Floyd’s family and the entire community. 

I am simply pointing out that true change begins with knowing what to change.

Police bosses need to lead and supervise. Politicians need to make financial commitments if they want true improvement and real conversion. Make the adjustments which have obviously been necessary for decades. Train your officers adequately.

And do it now, or we will continue to replay events like the one we saw in Minneapolis in perpetuity.

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