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Opinion: After George Floyd's Death, A Press Release Obscured A Police Murder

People wait for the verdict in Derek Chauvin's trial over the death of George Floyd outside the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Kerem Yucel
AFP via Getty Images
People wait for the verdict in Derek Chauvin's trial over the death of George Floyd outside the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis on Tuesday.

Bureaucratic prose is often written not to make things plain, but explain them away.

It may be especially telling this week, when 12 jurors found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty in the murder of George Floyd, to reread the first report the Minneapolis Police media relations office gave of Floyd's death.

"Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction," their May 25, 2020, bulletin began. They said officers responded to, "a report of a forgery in progress. Officers were advised that the suspect was sitting on top of a blue car and appeared to be under the influence."

Let's make plain here that no testimony established that George Floyd was "under the influence" of anything that led to his death — he died because Chauvin crushed his knee into Floyd's neck and back on the street for more than nine minutes.

Dr. Bill Smock, a forensic surgeon who appeared as a prosecution witness,told the court that when you see the video of George Floyd, he's not overdosing: "He's breathing. He's talking. He's not snoring. He is saying, 'Please, please get off of me. I want to breathe. I can't breathe.' "

The police bulletin went on to say that the suspect, "physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress."

As experts testified, Floyd's "medical distress" was caused by Chauvin, choking the life out of him, after he was already handcuffed.

The report says, "Officers called for an ambulance." It does not say they administered CPR. But Smock pointed out that police officers have the training, and legal responsibility, to give medical care to anyone they take into custody, even before an ambulance arrives.

A line near the end of that official report now sounds especially cold: "No officers were injured in the incident."

John Elder, the Minneapolis Police Department's director of public information, told the Los Angeles Times last year he had simply relayed the information received from police on the scene.

"Had we known that this [situation] was what we saw on the video," he told the newspaper, "that statement would have been completely different."

Of course it was because a 17-year-old named Darnella Frazier was on that corner and recorded what happened on her cellphone that Floyd's murder became known, a movement grew, and the man who killed him was held responsible. This week, you may wonder how many other killings dismissed in bureaucratic prose as, "Medical Incident During Police Interaction," have just been filed away.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.