George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died shortly after being physically restrained by four Minneapolis police officers on Monday. His arrest on suspicion of a non-violent crime (passing a counterfeit $20 bill) was caught on a cellphone video and at least two store surveillance videos. From the videos that are public so far, it seems clear that the police used excessive force that killed him. He looked lifeless when released from the hold. Medics could not find a pulse. He was dead on arrival at the hospital.
The cellphone video is hard to watch: An officer kneels on Floyd’s neck, while two others hold him down. He moans “Please, I can’t breathe. . . . My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Everything hurts. . . . (I need) water or something. Please. Please. I can’t breathe, officer. I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe.” The police suspected Floyd of being intoxicated and say they found him uncooperative, and he was an enormous man who had once done time for armed robbery, but there appears no sign that he was violent or dangerous. The surveillance videos do not even appear to show him resisting. Kneeling on a man’s neck is an extreme and dangerous step, well out of bounds for ordinary police procedures. The kneeling officer appears to have a long track record of complaints.
The citizens of Minneapolis are right to demand an investigation and potential prosecution. As bad as the videos look, however, we have a constitutional process for examining such cases for a reason. Videos, especially those that pick up partway into an incident, can be misleading. The facts may justify criminal prosecution, yet call for some judgment on the appropriate charges and whether to charge all four officers identically.
There is no sign that the authorities are dragging their feet. The day after Floyd’s death, all four officers were fired, and the FBI launched an investigation. The mayor and the chief of police denounced what happened. If the facts are as bad as they appear in the videos, the officers — or at least the lead officer — would seem to have little defense.
Yet, while the wheels of justice are moving swiftly, that has not prevented opportunists from erupting into riots, looting, and arson. Sacking a Target for televisions and burning down local businesses is no way to get justice for anyone. It is, instead, likely to add to the misery of people living on the margins and already hard-hit by the shutdown of the economy. It is also not recommended social distancing. No excuses should be made, or accepted, for theft and destruction. The police and the National Guard can and should restore order, which is itself a precondition of justice.