George Floyd might be alive today if police on scene had intervened

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Minneapolis Police guard the third precinct during unrest surrounding the murder of George Floyd, May 2020. Image credit: Chad Davis/Flickr

As dusk settled over the Minneapolis intersection of 38th and Chicago last Memorial Day, Police Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into George Floyd's neck. Handcuffed and gasping for air, Floyd addressed the officer as '"Sir." Floyd said "I can't breathe" more than 20 times. "Mama, I love you," he cried. Minutes later, he died. Chauvin kept his knee in place for three more minutes, time during which George Floyd might have been resuscitated. Chauvin's knee was on Floyd's neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, all it took to snuff out George Floyd's life of 46 years.

The 12 jurors unanimously found Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. It was the first time in Minnesota history that a white police officer had been convicted for killing an African American. George Floyd might be alive today, if any of the other three officers on the scene had intervened. Those three, Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, will soon face trials of their own for aiding and abetting Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd.

George Floyd's case was referenced in a recent New York State Supreme Court decision. "Quoting the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 'the time is always right to do right,'" New York State Supreme Court Judge Dennis Ward wrote in his order, overturning the 2008 firing of Buffalo Police Officer Cariol Horne.

In 2006, Cariol Horne, an African-American police officer in Buffalo, New York, responded to a call to assist another officer at an arrest in progress. What happened next turned her life upside down.

"I went to the home of Neal Mack at 707 Walden Avenue," Cariol Horne said this week on the Democracy Now! news hour. She saw an African-American man being brutalized by another officer:

"When I went inside of the house, Neal Mack was handcuffed and being punched in the face. So, once we got Neal Mack out of the house, that is when [Police Officer] Gregory Kwiatkowski started choking him. And that's when I released the chokehold, and then [Kwiatkowski] punched me in the face…So, then I went to the station house, reported it to the chief. An internal investigation started, and I became the target."

After Horne grabbed Kwiatkowski's arm to stop him from choking Mack, Kwiatkowski punched Horne so hard that she needed reconstructive surgery. Despite that, after an internal investigation, it was Horne who was fired, not Kwiatkowski. She was just months away from being eligible for her full pension. The job loss as a mother of five, just as the global economic crisis hit, was catastrophic. She ended up homeless, living out of her car. Neal Mack credits Cariol Horne with saving his life. Years later, Kwiatkowski went to prison for beating four handcuffed teenagers.

Horne organized a campaign to pass "Cariol's Law" in Buffalo, New York. The law codifies the duty to intervene for police officers, whether on or off duty, when they see another officer using unreasonable force against a civilian. It also protects those officers who intervene from retaliation. As the protests sparked by George Floyd's police killing swept the globe, the Buffalo City Council passed Cariol's Law, and the mayor signed it into law.

The Buffalo law also allowed officers who previously suffered retaliation to seek redress, which Cariol Horne did. She sued and won. Judge Dennis Ward's order restored her pension with back pay. Referring to George Floyd, Ward wrote:

"One of the issues in all of these cases is the role of other officers at the scene and particularly their complicity in failing to intervene to save the life of a person to whom such unreasonable physical force is being applied…To her credit, Officer Horne did not merely stand by, but instead sought to intervene, despite the penalty she ultimately paid for doing so... While the Eric Garners and George Floyds of the world never had a chance for a 'do over,' at least here the correction can be done."

The pace of police killings in the U.S., averaging about three per day, has not slowed since the protests erupted after George Floyd's death. Cariol Horne is pushing for "Cariol's Law" to be passed in cities and states across the country, as Congress debates the "George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020," which would ban chokeholds and establish a duty to intervene for federal police, among other things.

Derek Chauvin is going to prison for George Floyd's murder largely due to the actions and testimony of bystanders, from a nine-year-old girl to the teenager who recorded the crime. Let their courage inspire the national adoption of the duty of police to intervene, rather than aiding and abetting, police brutality.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!

Image credit: Chad Davis/Flickr

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