Do law enforcement officers have a legal obligation to intervene when they see a fellow officer using excessive force? Yes, they do.
On May 25, 2020, former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin, during the course of an arrest for suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill, killed George Floyd. Chauvin killed Floyd by placing his knee and body weight directly on Floyd’s neck, depriving him of oxygen until he suffocated and passed away—a cruel, inhumane and criminal act without a doubt. This murder occurred in front of several innocent bystanders who begged and pleaded for Chauvin to take his knee off of Floyd’s neck. Chauvin refused and has been convicted of murder.
But what is to become of the other Minneapolis Police Department officers who watched the murder and did nothing at all to stop it?
A police officer who willfully fails to intervene when another officer is using excessive force is criminally liable for violating the victim’s Constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizures. To prove a Constitutional violation along these lines, the federal government must demonstrate (1) that the observing officer had knowledge of the excessive force and (2) that there were reasonable steps he or she could have taken to prevent it.
It is beyond obvious that the officers who stood and watched Chauvin murder George Floyd had knowledge of his excessive force. In other words, they knew that it was unnecessary and excessive for Chauvin to plant his knee and body weight on the neck of a handcuffed man for over 9 minutes. It is also obvious that there were steps those officers could have taken to try to stop Chauvin. But they did nothing.
And so, the federal government filed an indictment on May 6, 2021, charging the officers with a violation of Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 242. The indictment alleges that former officers Tou Thau and J. Alexander Kueng “were aware that Defendant Chauvin was holding his knee across George Floyd’s neck as Floyd lay handcuffed and unresisting . . . and that [they] willfully failed to intervene to stop Defendant Chauvin’s use of unreasonable force.” It also states that former officers Chauvin, Thau, Kueng, and Thomas Lane “saw George Floyd . . . in clear need of medical care, and willfully failed to aid Floyd, thereby acting with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of harm to Floyd.”
What enabled (or emboldened) them to stand by and watch Chauvin torture and kill Floyd? What is it that deactivated those officers’ empathy, compassion, and sensitivity to immense human suffering? What caused the gap in those officers’ humanity? I fear that we cannot repair the broken pieces of our criminal justice system without answering these questions. Those officers were indifferent to George Floyd’s suffering because there was a breakdown in the institutional process that led to them being on that scene, wearing those badges, and choosing to NOT use the power bestowed upon them by the state to intervene and prevent George Floyd’s murder.
George Floyd should not have died. Derek Chauvin should have been stopped. His fellow officers had a duty, both as sworn law enforcement officers and human beings, to try to save George Floyd’s life. They rejected that duty and their inhumanity cost George Floyd his life. They must be held accountable.