As the prosecutor Jerry Blackwell addressed the jury for the first time in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin last week, he reeled off a list of witnesses expected to testify: from eyewitnesses who watched as the former officer held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, to forensic pathologists, use of force experts and members of the Minneapolis police department.
Among the most significant on this long list was the most senior member of that department, Chief Medaria Arradondo.
It is, of course, rare for an officer-involved death to make it to criminal trial, but it is rarer still – perhaps unprecedented, experts say – for a police chief to testify against one of their own former officers.
Arradondo’s testimony is likely to be a powerful weapon in the prosecution’s case as the defense will attempt to argue that Derek Chauvin’s protracted use of a knee-to-neck restraint was in line with use of force guidance.
“It’s a pretty remarkable move on the part of the prosecution,” said Dr Cedric Alexander, the former police chief and public safety director of DeKalb county, Georgia.
He added: “It’s very rare that you’re going to see a chief either appear for the defense or the prosecution. But each one of these kinds of events brings its own set of circumstances. And in this particular case, where you have a knee to the neck and it’s being questioned ‘was that trained technique?’ To be able to have the chief of police… to under oath testify is clearly going to be of importance.”
Although a spokesperson for the Minneapolis police department would not comment on the nature of the chief’s testimony, Blackwell made clear in his opening statement that Arradondo was not likely to pull his punches.
“He is going to tell you that Mr Chauvin’s conduct was not consistent with Minneapolis police department training,” Blackwell said. “He will not mince any words. He’s very clear. He will be very decisive, that this was excessive force.”
A unanimous decision is needed to convict Chauvin on any of the three counts he faces, of second degree murder, third degree murder and manslaughter, making forceful testimony alongside the plethora of video and medical evidence imperative for the prosecution.
By contrast, in 2016, at the murder trial of the former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who shot unarmed Walter Scott from behind as he ran away, in a fatal incident also captured on shocking video, North Charleston’s police chief, Eddie Driggers, testified for the defense. Driggers told the jury that Slager had appeared to comply with department guidance before he opened fire and described him as a “very good officer” during testimony.
The judge eventually declared a mistrial with the jury deadlocked 11 to 1 favoring conviction. Slager later pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges in a separate indictment and was sentenced to 20 years.
Arradondo, Minneapolis’s first Black police chief and a lifelong veteran of the beleaguered police force, assumed his position in 2017 and was thrust into the national spotlight as soon as Floyd’s death occurred. He moved to fire the four officers involved in the incident within days, in the face of significant criticism from Minneapolis’s police union, who accused him of acting “without due process”.
“This was a violation of humanity,” Arradondo said a few days after Floyd was killed. “This was a violation of the oath that the majority of the men and women that put this uniform on [take] – this goes absolutely against it. This is contrary to what we believe in.”
At the same time, a majority of the city council explored efforts to disband the entire police force and later voted to divert significant police funding, $8m, into other public services including new mental health teams created to respond to certain 911 calls. The department also saw a “staggering” number of officers seeking disability payments in the wake of the uprising that gripped the city, sparking fears of a staffing shortage.
“The chief is under tremendous pressure,” said Laurie Robinson, former assistant US attorney general and the co-chair of Barack Obama’s Taskforce on 21st-Century Policing, created in the wake of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. “This may be the hardest police chief job in the country at this point, between the tensions around this trial, pressures from the community dealing with the aftermath of the George Floyd death, the calls for changes in the department and the protection of the community that’s dealing with rising gun violence and crime.”
Some local activists acknowledged the significance of Arradondo’s coming testimony but argued it was only a first step.
“It’s a good thing that he’s going to testify against Chauvin but at the same time we need justice,” said DJ Hooker, a 26 year-old local organizer with the Black Lives Matter movement. “Getting Chauvin convicted, that’s a way to get justice. Getting the other three killer cops convicted, that’s another way to get justice. But also, getting systemic change. That’s also justice. And that’s also what we need to work on getting.”
Hooker pointed to the demand for greater community control over the hiring and firing of officers via an elected civilian council as one example of systemic change.
Alexander, also the former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said the fact that Arradondo was the city’s first Black chief could add more pressure on the testimony. In 2007, then a lieutenant, Arradondo himself, along with four other officers, sued the department over racial discrimination in a case that was settled $740,000.
“Certainly being the chief of color in a situation that involves a white officer and a Black subject and is so sensitized around race could put an additional stress on a chief of color. But the reality is you approach this just like you would any other situation. And that is with facts, and that is with balance.”
Both Robinson and Alexander agree that Arradondo’s testimony could lead to more police chiefs being called to the witness stand in the future.
“The public is certainly asking for more transparency and and more accountability. So I would not be surprised in the future if you see more police executives that are being requested to testify, either for the defense or the prosecution,” Alexander said.