A former Minneapolis police officer charged with violating the civil rights of George Floyd took the witness stand on Tuesday to defend his actions during the fatal May 2020 arrest of the 46-year-old Black man.
Tou Thao, 35, is one of three former policemen on trial for their roles in Floyd's murder and the first to testify publicly about what happened that day.
Derek Chauvin, the white former Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on the neck of a handcuffed Floyd for nearly 10 minutes until he passed out and died, is serving 22 years in prison after being convicted of murder.
Floyd's death was filmed by a bystander and sparked months of protests in the United States against racial injustice and police brutality.
Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane were the three other officers on the scene as Floyd was being taking into custody for allegedly using a fake $20 bill to buy a pack of cigarettes.
While Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck, Kueng was on his back and Lane held his legs.
Thao kept bystanders, who were telling Chauvin to get off the visibly distressed Floyd, from getting any closer to the scene.
"I was full-time crowd control," Thao said, calling himself a "human traffic cone."
Thao said he told the crowd that the officers "were not trying to hurt" Floyd but were "just trying to restrain him."
He said he believed Floyd was under the influence of drugs but he "had no idea" of the seriousness of his condition until firefighters turned up at the scene.
"I was assuming they were taking care of him," he said, in a reference to the other officers there.
- 'Not uncommon' -
Thao, who is of Hmong origin, was also shown pictures by his lawyer of restraint techniques taught in police training.
Thao said the use of a knee as a restraint was "not uncommon." "We were trained on it," he said.
The indictment charges Thao, Kueng and Lane with showing "deliberate indifference" to Floyd's medical needs.
Thao and Kueng are also accused of failing to intervene to stop Chauvin's use of "unreasonable force" against Floyd.
Lane does not face the second charge. Video of the arrest shows that on two occasions, Lane suggested Floyd be rolled over on his side.
Chauvin was an 18-year veteran of the Minneapolis police force; Thao had served for eight years while Kueng and Lane were new recruits, having joined the department in December 2019 and worked only a half-dozen shifts between them.
Twelve jurors and six alternates are hearing the case against the three officers.
Thao, Kueng and Lane are to face Minnesota state charges in connection with Floyd's death in a trial that is scheduled to begin on June 13.
But in a sign of the importance of the case, federal prosecutors also charged the officers with violating Floyd's constitutional rights.
The federal trial is being held in a heavily guarded courtroom in Saint Paul, the sister city to Minneapolis.
All three men have pleaded not guilty.
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