Defense of ex-officers puts Minneapolis ‘paramilitary’ training on trial

Attorneys for Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane have presented a case that shifts blame for George Floyd's killing away from the former officers and toward a paramilitary police department where the unofficial blue-line code supersedes the policy manual.

A still photo from the body camera of then-Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao on May 25, 2020, when officers detained George Floyd outside a neighborhood store in south Minneapolis. Thao, and two other former Minneapolis police officers -- J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane -- are facing federal charges of abusing their position as police officers to deprive Floyd, who later died, of his constitutional rights when another officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes.
Courtesy Hennepin County via MPR News
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Over the past month, the defense for three former Minneapolis police officers has asked jurors to consider an alternative theory as to why their clients did so little to help a man dying slowly in their custody almost two years ago: It's how they were trained.

In the federal civil rights trial in St. Paul, attorneys for Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane have presented a case that shifts blame for George Floyd's killing away from the former officers and toward a paramilitary police department where the unofficial blue-line code supersedes the policy manual.

On Tuesday, the attorneys delivered closing remarks in a case where training is central to both sides. In separate final arguments, all three defense lawyers spoke at length about the training.

"A lot of this case went into training," Lane's attorney Earl Gray told the jury. "We like that. Because Thomas Lane followed training right to a T."

The charges say Thao, Kueng and Lane ignored their obligation to render medical aid to Floyd, even as Floyd repeatedly pleaded for air, cried out for his mother and fell unresponsive. Thao and Kueng face a second charge for failing to stop Derek Chauvin as he planted his knee in Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes. Chauvin, who was convicted of Floyd's murder in state court, pleaded guilty in this case last December.


Use of force

The trial has offered a roving tour inside the culture of an organization known for its carefully vetted outward-facing image. The attorneys pored over training materials and cross-examined command staff and authors of the training curriculum. They showed videos from Thao's academy class featuring officers subduing people with a knee to the neck, similar to the maneuver used by Chauvin. They brought in expert witnesses, including former officers, to testify that a rookie "lacked the training and experience to recognize Mr. Chauvin's excessive use of force," let alone the authority to stop him.

During a cross-examination, Kueng's attorney, Thomas Plunkett, asked Inspector Katie Blackwell if the training is designed to imprint an "us vs. them" mentality toward the public they serve. Blackwell responded in the negative. Then Plunkett played a clip embedded in a PowerPoint for training she helped develop, which contained audio of Al Pacino from the movie "Any Given Sunday" delivering a warrior speech on the need to win a football game, accompanied by images of police in hostile situations.

"On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch," says Pacino, in the video, which is apparently screened for police. "We claw with our fingernails for that inch."

All three officers also testified in the past week, giving their sides of the story publicly for the first time. Kueng and Lane, both rookies on the force, described their experience at the department's military-style police academy, where cadets are taught to stand at attention and address their superiors as "sir" and "ma'am.

"The chain of command is not to be breached — or else," said Kueng, adding he saw a fellow recruit who did breach it suffer a public berating from a superior.

"Sounds to me you were trained to walk and talk like a soldier," said Plunkett.

"Very much so," Kueng replied.

After graduation, they work alongside field-training officers. Though their job title technically reads "officer," Kueng said they are still referred to as "trainees."


Lane told the court that trainees are expected to adopt the policing style of their field-training officers, whose recommendations to "the right people" will decide if they are fired or stay on the job.

Kueng said he believed his training officer could "unilaterally" fire him, even after the training period. Kueng's training officer was Chauvin. That's why, he said, he deferred to Chauvin once he arrived on the crime scene, despite department policy dictating the first officers on scene should be in command.

Like the military?

Former Minneapolis officer Gary Nelson, an expert witness for Lane, reiterated the most senior officer is the one who takes control, no matter what the official line is. "It goes back to that hierarchy," said Nelson, who said the Minneapolis department does "share a lot of traits you would see similarly in a military organization."

The prosecution argued the opposite. They say the officers received extensive training on emergency medical response. They produced the officers' quizzes from classes showing they answered questions correctly about what to do when a person stops breathing. And even a group of bystanders with no training could see Floyd needed help.

"Fear of negative repercussions at work is not an exception to rendering medical aid?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Samantha Trepel asked Lane this week during cross examination.

Correct, said Lane.

The officers also attended training on an official policy stating they had a duty to intervene if they witnessed excessive force by a fellow officer.

But the training on duty to intervene only consisted of one PowerPoint slide, an instructor reading policy and a much more egregious example of the type of excessive force one must intervene upon, said Kueng.


Minneapolis police say they've since implemented more extensive training on the duty to intervene in the aftermath of Floyd's killing. "Our team also partnered with nonprofit leaders to secure funding for an early-intervention system to proactively identify officers that need additional training," said Tara Niebling, spokeswoman for Mayor Jacob Frey, in a statement Tuesday. She said the Mayor's 2022 budget includes funding for a new city attorney to review training materials.

In Lane's testimony Monday, he repeatedly told the jury he was following training from the moment he encountered Floyd. He said Floyd ignored his commands and refused to show Lane his hands, which set off "alarm bells."

"I think we've had scenarios almost exactly like that in the academy," said Lane.

Lane said he pulled his firearm and "escalated the situation to show how serious I thought it was."

"Were you taught that in the academy?" asked his attorney, Earl Gray.

"Yes," said Lane.

Excited delirium

All three former officers testified extensively that they believed Floyd may be suffering from excited delirium, a condition Kueng said could cause Floyd to "spring back to life" and become a threat once again, even when Floyd was unresponsive.

The department's training told officers that excited delirium is an extreme form of agitation that manifests as "superhuman strength," bizarre speech and aggressive conduct. A slideshow featured an image of officers pinning a man with their knees to subdue him. Lane said they were taught to restrain these people in order to "keep a person from thrashing, hold them in place."

The Minneapolis Police Department said it has since stopped training on excited delirium, after the American Medical Association passed a policy rejecting the diagnosis as an overly vague term, too often used by police to justify use of force. A Star Tribune report recently found they were still training police on this syndrome, and Frey has sworn to change the curriculum.

In his closing argument Tuesday, Thao's attorney, Robert Paule, remarked that all three defendants testified they independently suspected excited delirium with Floyd.

"All three officers came to the same conclusion," he said. "Rightly or wrongly, but at least it was based on their training."

©2022 StarTribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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