2nd officer testifies at federal trial in George Floyd killing

Testimony continues Wednesday in the federal trial of three former Minneapolis police officers. Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao are accused of violating George Floyd’s civil rights. After prosecutors finished their final questions of Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng was called to the stand.

Earlier on Wednesday, prosecutors continued questioning Tou Thao, who said Tuesday that he assumed Derek Chauvin, Lane and Kueng were caring for Floyd while Thao was on crowd control.

Thao was asked about the crowd yelling for the officers to check Floyd’s condition. He replied, “I don’t take orders from them.” When prosecutors noted nobody was off the curb around five minutes into Floyd’s restraint, Thao added that “we’re trained never to underestimate a crowd.”

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He also continued to place more blame on the other officers, particularly Chauvin. He noted there were three officers to check on Floyd and, of Chauvin, he thought, “Surely a 19-year veteran could deal with the situation.” When asked if he told Chauvin to get off Floyd, he added that he didn’t because “I would trust a 19-year veteran to figure it out.”

When asked about the amount of force Chauvin was using when Floyd wasn’t resisting, Thao said he thought Chauvin’s knee was possibly “hovering” over Floyd and didn’t know Floyd was unconscious six minutes into the restraint. He added that they believed Floyd was experiencing excited delirium and those subjects “can come back and fight again.”

When asked if he told dispatchers that Floyd was unconscious, struggling to breathe or possibly experiencing excited delirium, Thao confirmed he didn’t. Prosecutors also asked if Thao pointed out to the other officers that Floyd stopped talking, was unconscious and that the crowd wanted them to check Floyd’s pulse. He responded, “How would I know all those things?”

The pool reporter noted more than 40 objections by Thao’s attorneys while prosecutors questioned him Wednesday morning.

When Thao’s lawyer asked a few more questions, Thao testified that the reason they restrained Floyd was “in order to get medical attention … to save his life.” “To save his life, we needed to hold him down for medical personnel,” Thao later added. He then reiterated that he didn’t know the severity of Floyd’s condition until later that night and didn’t even realize the ambulance left the scene until Chauvin tapped him on the shoulder.

Attorneys for Kueng and Lane opted to not question Thao.

Judge Paul Magnuson also announced Wednesday morning that Juror No. 80, an alternate, was excused because he became sick.

The second of three former Minneapolis police officers, J. Alexander Kueng took the stand. He explained his background, noting he was born and raised in north Minneapolis and didn’t like police officers as a kid because they “were very rude … unhelpful.” He said he wanted to change that, which is why he wanted to become a police officer.

Kueng noted he worked in loss prevention at Macy’s before interviewing with now-former Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo to become a community service officer.

As Kueng’s attorney questioned him, the attorney told jurors he’d call use-of-force training “defensive tactics.”

Kueng just briefly got into explaining his training before court went in recess for lunch but testified that officers are taught to make sure a scene is secure before starting CPR, adding, “There’s no metric as to when it’s safe … it’s up to the officers involved.”

Kueng continued his testimony Wednesday afternoon. According to KSTP, Kueng’s attorney Thomas Plunkett focused on what he refers to as the “paramilitary” culture within MPD. He walked his client through details about the uniforms officers wear, the rules for running information, the demerit system and riot training.

Plunkett asked, “What was your experience with officer of the day?”, a concept raised during the prosecution’s case.

“It’s very much to reinforce the chain of command,” Kueng responded, “The instructors will not give commands to the recruits directly [… ] they do it through the OD.”

Plunkett also asked Kueng about a provision in the Academy training manual, which says “Instant and unquestioned obedience is demanded.”

Keung testified, “[…] whenever you were told to do something, you do it […] you don’t second guess it, you don’t think about ti, you just follow it.”

The ex-officer told the jury, he had the impression his field training officer has the ability to terminate a recruit. When asked whether this created a concern of being fired, Kueng said “every shift.”

Plunkett also asked his client about the training he received while becoming a police officer.

Kueng testified, “I’ve never had any neck restraint training using a leg, sir.”

The defense attorney highlighted a portion of the training manual, which said only sworn officers who received training from MPD are authorized to use a neck restraint.

Later in the afternoon, in regards to Chauvin’s restraint, Kueng said “I interpreted it, sir, being exactly what I imagined […].”

Kueng confirmed he did not receive scenario-based training on the duty to intervene. The training, he said, was limited to a slide in a powerpoint presentation.

“It was this slide and we had either us of or an instructor read the policy and then an example was given,” said Kueng. “It was something to the effect of when you see something obviously wrong and then goes into describe an officer kicking punching or stomping on a handcuffed [suspect], typically in the face.”

The side recovery position was not mentioned in this context, according to Kueng. He also testified he remembered the side-recovery position being mentioned during excited delirium and Narcan training.

During his time in the Academy, Kueng said he received defensive tactics training twice a week for four hours per day.

The former officer told jurors he started field training in January of 2020 and finished in May of 2020. He said the field training officer “is not a peer […] They’re your mentor, your role model […] your terminator.”

Derek Chauvin was his field training officer for two out of four phases.

“He was very quiet but he had a high level of experience,” said Kueng. “He as very by the book, he was very knowledgeably about polity and law.”

He testified that other officers respected Chauvin and deferred to him on calls. Chauvin had a reputation for being “fair but tough”, according to Kueng.

Plunkett asked about various calls Kueng went on while completing his field training, including mental health calls and a baby that had trouble breathing.

Kueng testified he did not respond to any excited delirium cases.

When Plunkett asked whether any of the drug overdose calls he responded to were “similar to your experience with Mr. Floyd”, Kueng said “No, sir.”

Jurors learned that Kueng and Lane were paired together on their day after completing their field training.

“With us being new guys, we were paired together because no one wanted to work with us,” said Kueng.

He testified the pair were called to Cup Foods for a report of a forgery during that shift.

“The call notes which we get, that the dispatchers put in our computer […] Did also mention the person appeared to be intoxicated” and that there may have been a person on top of a car, said Kueng.

He testified that it did not initially seem like a serious call.

Kueng said that upon arrival they spoke to a Cup Foods employee briefly and then he and Lane walked across the street. He testified Lane said “they saw us”, which indicated to Kueng, “typically it’s a sign to be cautious […] any element of surprise we had was gone.”

Plunkett asked whether Cup Foods is in a “problematic area” and Kueng responded “it’s a high crime area” but couldn’t say what kinds of crimes occur in the neighborhood.

Kueng testified that the seriousness of the call changed throughout the encounter at Floyd’s SUV. He said as he walked around the back of the SUV towards the passenger side, he saw a man get out of the vehicle and put his hands up.

According to Kueng, Lane was on the driver’s side of the vehicle, “I did not know at that time that Officer Lane had his firearm out.”

He told the jury Lane acted consistently with training.

Kueng testified he heard Lane order Floyd to put his hands on the steering wheel.

“The hands are the most important thing we look for at every call,” said Kueng. “Hands are what you use to grab weapons […] so being able to see your hands lets us know you currently don’t have anything that we should be concerned with being deadly.”

Kueng told the jury that there were three people inside the SUV, outnumbering the officers. He also testified that handcuffed individuals can still be dangerous, “they can still run, they can tackle you, they can bite […]”

He said he had concerns about Floyd, “I wasn’t sure what his status was mentally or physically, or what his behavior was but he had some erratic behavior”. Kueng testified he noticed foam around Floyd’s mouth “consistent with drug use”, hyperactivity, and that Floyd didn’t seem to register questions until the second or third time he was asked. Kueng added that Floyd’s legs “just kind of dropped” as they led him across the street to the squad, which created a concern he was acting “without regard to his own safety.”

Kueng told the jury they relocated Floyd to the squad because “At the time we were still concerned about the tactical disadvantage of a three v two situation […]” and called Floyd the primary agitator, “we did expect the influence of narcotics” which Kueng said could’ve made his behavior erratic.

He explained they searched Floyd once they got the squad and then tried to put him into the vehicle.

Plunkett asked, “Did you have concerns about overdoses at that point?” and Kueng responded, “At the time sir, no.”

Kueng testified as they tried to get Floyd into the squad, “we attempted to give him a brief moment of levity […] he sat there took a deep breath and after about five seconds I tried to just nudge him in the car” and Floyd responded “forcefully.”

Kueng told the jury as he got half of Floyd’s body through the door, “his behavior just went to extreme measures, he started shaking very violently.”

According to the ex-officer, Floyd hit his face on plexiglass inside the vehicle before exiting out the other side of the squad.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of strong individuals,“ said Kueng in reference to his training. “I’ve never been involved in a struggle like I had with Mr. Floyd […] If I was by myself, there was no way I could handle that.”

Kueng stated that Floyd’s facial injury raised his concerns that he was experiencing excited delirium because it showed “an attraction to glass.” He said Floyd also didn’t respond to the pain of the arm hold when he fell to the ground.

Kueng testified that he wasn’t aware at first that Thao and Chauvin had arrived to the scene. He told the jury that while MPD policy dictates that the most senior officer in the first squad to arrive is in charge of the scene, “In all my experience policing, it’s always the senior officer […] the senior officer is the one that we got to as they have the most experience.”

He said he was aware Chauvin had at least 15 years of experience. When he saw his former field training officer, Kueng said he thought “we were either making a mistake or he saw we were doing something incorrect.”

Kueng described his stress level as high. He testified he wasn’t aware of what was happening around him, “I had a lot of tunnel vision going on.”

The ex-officer told jurors he initially placed his knee on Floyd’s buttocks but later moved it down to the hamstrings, since that muscle group is “very important for generating power.”

He said the pressure he applied with his knee fluctuated throughout the encounter.

“At the time, I saw officer Chauvin’s left knee placed along the upper back and the neck of Mr. Floyd,” said Kueng. “I wasn’t able to tell exactly where it was.”

He said Thao initially oversaw the situation and guided the former officers on why they shouldn’t use a hobble. Thao then left his view and Kueng assumed he was doing crowd or traffic control.

“I wasn’t focusing on that situation I was concentrating on Mr. Floyd,” said Kueng. “To keep my balance and being able to monitor his respirations.”

He told jurors it was his understanding that when a patient is talking, they’re able to breathe.

Kueng confirmed he responded when Lane asked whether they get Floyd’s legs up.

“I said leave him, yep,” said Kueng, who explained he was trying to pass Chauvin’s response on to Lane.

He told jurors, “Lane was suggesting what he thought would be alternatives to control measures” but Chauvin disagreed. “He was my senior officer and I trust his advice.”

Kueng testified he was taught that the person at the head of the Floyd is in control of a medical situation.

He said “.. as I was sitting next to Officer Chauvin, I could hear what sounded like a button snap that comes from items on our duty belt ..” and told jurors he saw Chauvin pull out mace, shake it and point it at the crowd.

“That to me was a kind of confirmatory the scene safety was not to level […] medical care could be provided,” said Kueng.

He testified he’d never seen Chauvin pull out mace before.

Kueng told the jury he checked for Floyd’s pulse at his wrist because it was the only place available to him at the time. He testified he informed Chauvin that he couldn’t find one.

“I was passing that information to Officer Chauvin who was at the head […] and could make a decision,” said Kueng. “I was thinking that Officer Chauvin would check the pulse himself, the carotid one […] or he would move and either go address the crowd with Officer Thao or maybe go help Officer Chang […] who was still in a 2 v 1 situation at the time.”

When the ambulance arrived, Kueng said the paramedic looked “very casual about the station […] took a carotid pulse and then seemed to walk back to his ambulance just as casually without letting Officer Lane finish his debrief.”

He told the jury he didn’t recall the last time he saw Floyd take a breath.

Plunkett asked, “well did you think he was breathing at that point?” Kueng responded, “I did.”

The defense attorney played for jurors the moments Lane returned to the scene after leaving the ambulance where he assisted with medical care. Body camera footage showed Lane and Kueng speaking to then-Sgt. David Pleoger about what happened. Thao and Chauvin were standing with them.

Plunkett asked why Kueng didn’t mention the pulse check, “Were you lying?” Kueng responded, “No sir, it just didn’t occur to me.”

The ex-officer confirmed Chauvin told him what to do in the aftermath of the encounter, testifying he was in charge.

When Lt. Zimmerman arrived on the scene about an hour later, Kueng said he thought “the incident had now been confirmed as a critical incident” and that Zimmerman was getting a public safety statement.

When asked again why Kueng didn’t mention a pulse check or Floyd being unconscious, he said “At the time, again, it just escaped me. I didn’t think it was relevant to the public safety statement at hand.”

Plunkett followed up with a series of questions about his knowledge of the constitutional rights he’s accused of violating. The former officer confirmed he understood both at the time of Floyd’s restraint.

Kueng testified they took Floyd into custody “as part of an investigation” and “to prevent any harm to ourselves or himself.”

He said they tried to put Floyd into the squad because it was “a more controlled enforcement” and the force used was meant to allow them to monitor Floyd. “We were concerned that his situation could deteriorate and if the paramedics […] showed up […] wanted to give them quick access.”

Kueng testified they were also concerned Floyd could “spring back to life” due to excited delirium.

Plunkett asked, “When in time did you first realize there was what the law calls a serious medical need here?” Kueng responded, “Well, to be honest here, I don’t think I ever did kind of assess it or confirm it as a serious medical need.”

He said handcuffs could’ve caused a poor reading when he checked for a pulse and at the time “I believe he was breathing.”

Plunkett asked again, “When did you realize Mr. Floyd had a serious medical need?” Kueng responded, “It was probably not until the time Lane came back from the ambulance and rejoined me.”

The former officer testified the scene was “very delicate”. He said Chauvin was in a position to give himself and Lane information about what was happening outside of their view, Thao was out of view “dealign with a situation we knew nothing about”, the crowd was should “things I can’t discern […] we had individuals who approached from behind.”

Kueng testified, “It was a very, very unstable situation that I don’t think was captured all the accurately on the body cam.”

The prosecution began its cross-examination late Wednesday afternoon, first focusing on J. Alexander Kueng’s four-year degree from the University of Minnesota and MPD training.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Manda Sertich asked whether the MPD motto of, “protect with courage and serve with compassion” factor into why Kueng wanted to become a police officer. He said yes.

She also asked Kueng about the concept ‘in your custody, in your care’. He said, “I think of it more of as once they are in your custody, they’re your responsibility.”

Kueng confirmed the sanctity of life is a foundational principle of policing.

He also confirmed he went over concepts including responsibilities after force, use of force, first aid, reporting procedures and de-escalation during field training orientation.

Sertich and Kueng went back and forth on the appropriateness of using force on someone handcuffed once they’re complaint, with Kueng arguing certain holds are sometimes continued, including for the purposes of transport.

Sertich asked, “Force that’s reasonable in one situation, at one time can stop being reasonable later as the situation changes?”

Kueng confirmed, “That is the idea.”

Prosecutors got about 15 minutes to question Kueng before Judge Magnuson ended court for the day. Kueng will be back on the stand when court resumes Thursday morning.