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Ex-officer says he feared angering Derek Chauvin would lead to firing

J. Alexander Kueng said he tried to act as a conduit between Chauvin and then-officer Thomas Lane, who asked repeatedly whether George Floyd should be turned on his side. Kueng, though, admitted he never asked Chauvin to turn Floyd over himself but echoed Chauvin’s response to “just leave him.”

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J. Alexander Kueng, left, and his attorney Thomas Plunkett leave the Hennepin County Public Service building following a court appearance in 2020.
Judy Griesedieck / MPR News file photo
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ST. PAUL -- Former Minneapolis officer J. Alexander Kueng told jurors at his federal trial Thursday he was still on rookie probation at the scene of George Floyd’s arrest in May 2020 and worried he could be fired if he displeased Derek Chauvin, his senior officer.

On the stand in his own defense, Kueng said he tried to act as a conduit between Chauvin and then-officer Thomas Lane, who asked repeatedly whether Floyd should be turned on his side. Kueng, though, admitted he never asked Chauvin to turn Floyd over himself but echoed Chauvin’s response to “just leave him.”

Asked why he didn’t tell two superiors later about Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck after the incident, Kueng said, “It’s not my duty to report another officer’s perspective.”

Kueng and ex-officers Lane and Tou Thao are federally charged with failing to provide Floyd medical aid. Thao and Kueng are also charged with failing to intervene with their colleague Chauvin’s use of force on Floyd.

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From left, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao.
Courtesy photos / Hennepin County Sheriff's Office

Chauvin was found guilty in April on state charges of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s killing. Bystander video showed Chauvin keeping his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as the man lay handcuffed and face down on the pavement, pleading that he couldn’t breathe.

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Deference to a ‘senior officer’

In court Thursday, Kueng’s attorney Thomas Plunkett continued to criticize the Minneapolis Police Department’s training policies, entering Kueng’s probationary officer skills checklist into evidence. Kueng testified that he handed the checklist to his field training officer, who checked all the boxes and turned it in: “no review.”

After Kueng wrapped up his testimony Thursday, a defense use-of-force witness took the stand to say the force the officers used and the restraint of Floyd on the ground were in line with contemporary policing practices.

Steve Ijames said continued restraint was “more than was reasonably necessary, but that he’d expect a rookie officer to defer to assume that the senior officer on scene wasn’t providing aid for a good reason. ”An officer with one and a half patrol shifts under his belt is going to defer to a senior officer.”

At points during the cross examination, Ijames appeared to undercut defense arguments.

He admitted under testimony that Kueng could have repositioned Floyd so he could breathe, told Chauvin to reposition Floyd or try to find Floyd’s pulse in his neck but did not.

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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

Prosecutor Manda Sertich asked whether officers are relieved of the duty to intervene if another officer takes over the scene. Ijames said that was right as long as the officer perceived the use of force.

The defense, and Kueng’s testimony, characterized bystanders at the scene as a potential threat. But under prosecution questioning, Ijames said he didn’t see any reason it would be inappropriate for CPR to have been performed at that scene.

‘Trusted his advice’

During testimony Wednesday, Kueng said the call initially that ended in Floyd’s killing didn’t seem serious. Kueng and Lane decided to put Floyd in the squad while they continued to investigate because he “had some erratic behaviors,” Kueng said.

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“An individual that is that physically imposing, it can be beneficial to just put them in the squad, so the threat is as neutralized as it could be,” Kueng said.

He testified that he’s "never been involved in a struggle like with Floyd" and felt like at any time Floyd could just "shake him off."

After the officers took Floyd to the ground, Kueng said he used his knees to hold down Floyd’s buttocks and leg. He testified that he “fluctuated” how much force he was exerting based on how much Floyd was moving. He said he wasn’t initially aware of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck or back, but was focused on keeping his balance on Floyd and “monitoring Floyd’s breathing.”

Chauvin was his senior officer, and he “trusted his advice” about scene safety and Chauvin’s decision to not put Floyd on his side. Kueng said his medical training was that the person in control of a medical situation is the person at the head of a body.

Under cross-examination by prosecutor Manda Sertich, Kueng testified that he received training on police officers’ obligations to provide medical aid to people in their custody and the requirement to use only proportional force on people.

Kueng said, “if you have someone in handcuffs who is compliant, you are able to keep hold of them for their own safety.” But he admitted that there’s no need to use force on someone who is unconscious.

Kueng also told the prosecutor that he had “tunnel vision” while restraining Floyd, and wasn’t aware of what Chauvin was doing or how his knee was positioned.

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