Opinions and Legal Insights

How Minneapolis Handled a 2010 Death Similar to Floyd’s

“Is he breathing?” asked Minneapolis police officer Timothy Callahan. He and his partner, responding to a call a decade ago about a person acting strangely at a YMCA, Tasered a Black man five times during a fight, wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him facedown on a basketball court. Callahan sat on David Cornelius Smith’s legs while partner Timothy Gorman pressed his knee for 4 minutes and 30 seconds between Smith’s shoulders. Smith moaned, then fell silent, reports the Washington Post. Smith, 28, died at a hospital a week later. Both Smith and George Floyd this year died after police spent several minutes kneeling on them. After Floyd’s death, four police officers were fired and criminally charged. In the Smith case, there was no public outcry. The officers were not criminally charged or disciplined.

In a wrongful death suit by Smith’s family, some supervisors saw lapses in Smith’s treatment. “There were clearly issues in this case where the way we train officers to monitor someone’s medical condition and breathing, these training standards were not upheld,” said criminal investigations commander Amelia Huffman. In 2013, the city settled the suit for $3 million, with no admission of liability but a promise officers would “undergo training on positional asphyxia.” Criminologist Geoffrey Alpert of at the University of South Carolina said placing a knee on someone’s neck is “such an obvious, dangerous tactic” that it has long been discouraged in police training. A knee on the back is far more acceptable when handcuffing a suspect, “but immediately after that person’s been controlled, you roll them over. You give them the opportunity to breathe,” he said. A lawsuit filed over Floyd’s death says Minneapolis did not keep its promises to the Smith family, saying Floyd “was not the first black man to be killed … under such circumstances.”