When Baton Rouge activist Gary Chambers Jr. posted a cell phone video on his Facebook page of a police officer kneeling on what appeared to be a Black teenager’s neck, Louisiana’s state capital braced for the worst.
Many in the United States are still healing from the collective distress endured while watching white Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvin press his knee into George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, rendering him unresponsive.
In Baton Rouge, imagery of 17-year-old Dillion Cannon laying on the pavement under an officer’s knee threatened to once again peel back the barely formed scab on a wound that keeps reopening with every police encounter that results in a lifeless Black body.
“A cop doing this after George Floyd knows exactly what they are doing,” Chambers wrote in the text accompanying the video.
In a post-George Floyd world, Cannon’s arrest has brought with it new questions about how police arrest people, and what legally constitutes use of force versus what the public may consider excessive.
In Cannon’s case, the teen was a passenger riding alongside his older cousin Kimani Smith, 22. Officers attempted a routine traffic stop, but Smith kept driving and officers gave chase. When Smith eventually pulled over, Cannon exited the car’s front passenger door and immediately knelt down on the pavement, raising his arms above his head. The Baton Rouge Police Department released body camera footage that shows an officer aiming a firearm at Cannon for more than 20 seconds before — along with two other officers coming from different directions — approaching him and pushing him to the ground. The other officers then pull Cannon’s arms behind his back and one of them places a knee on his upper back for roughly 10 seconds to hold him down while he is being handcuffed.
One major debate has been whether the officer’s knee ended up on Cannon’s neck. Neck restraints are banned under BRPD’s use-of-force policy.
Days after Chambers posted the cell phone video (which he was alerted to by another community leader), Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome told NPR’s Here and Now that “the optics don’t look good,” adding, “An officer putting a knee on the neck of any citizen as a tactic is not accepted. It is unacceptable here and it will not be tolerated.”
Since then BRPD released a still image from body camera footage showing the officer’s knee on the teen’s back, which Chief of Police Murphy Paul Jr. said complies with the department’s arrest policy.
Cannon’s lawyer Ron Haley, known for representing plaintiffs in a number of police use of force cases, maintained that the officer “puts his knee at first on [Cannon’s] back and then transitions it to his neck.”
Where exactly the officer’s knee was placed makes little difference to Chambers, who believes it did make contact with Cannon’s neck.
“I don’t care if you were directly on his neck, if you were on the tip of his neck, get off of him because there was no need to even slam him to the ground because he had already surrendered,” he said. “…Treat him with the dignity that you would if he were white.”
Historically, Baton Rouge’s Black residents, who make up more than 50 percent of the population, have had a challenging relationship with law enforcement.
Before protesters shouted “George Floyd” they shouted “Alton Sterling” in Black Lives Matter marches all over the country. On July 5, 2016, four years and a day before Cannon’s arrest, Baton Rouge police shot and killed Sterling in the parking lot of a local convenience store where he sold CDs. Body camera and storefront security footage show Sterling being ambushed by two officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, who threatened to “shoot him in his [expletive] head” and tased him. Finally, Salamoni bum-rushed an already disoriented Sterling, pushed him to the ground, knelt on top of him and shot him at close range.
Salamoni was fired from BRPD and Lake was suspended for three days. No criminal charges were brought against either officer.
“We have been a community in trauma,” Mayor Weston-Broome, who has made police reform and community-police relations central to her platform since her election in 2017, told Here and Now.
Chambers became skeptical of the police long before Salamoni shot Sterling to death, when he was 12.
“I was thrown over a cop’s back and taken to juvenile detention. He said I reached for his gun. I never touched a weapon in my life. That’s what the police officer said, so I spent the night in jail,” he said. “… So to be lied on at 12 years old, I will never forget that. So long before I even felt the need to engage in police reform advocacy I had had personal experiences, as do every Black person in America that I know, that makes you go, ‘Are these the good guys?’”
Haley, Dillion Cannon’s attorney, says his client had similar questions about the cops, due to growing up with news reports of high profile fatal police shootings like the one involving Sterling.
“I think that played into his mind in the way that he surrendered,” Haley said. “I think subconsciously he wanted to put himself in a position to not get hurt.”
Haley added that Cannon was still in a neck brace as of three weeks after the incident.
Chambers has demanded that the officer who kneeled on Cannon be terminated and that the other officers on the scene be disciplined for not intervening.
But one likely explanation for why fellow officers did not stop him is that knee restraints are commonplace in police departments.
“A number of police departments train officers to arrest with a knee. I was trained that way — [using the knee is] one form of arresting somebody who was on their stomach,” said Jose Torres, PhD, a sociology professor at Louisiana State University who studies race and policing and who served on the Norfolk Police Department in Virginia for three years.
Torres explained that the procedure used in Cannon’s arrest is called the prone position and referenced a training video on YouTube demonstrating how it should be carried out.
Using the prone position may not be classified as a type of force under BRPD policy. However, a copy of the department’s use-of-force policy from 2018 reads, “Only the amount of force necessary to effect the arrest may be used.” It’s likely, Torres said, that officers would not need to report employing knee restraints as a use of force.
“If I were to arrest you with the procedure where my knee is on your back, if there was no physical altercation that took place before I put your hands behind your back my department might say, ‘Oh, there’s no need for you to report this.’ … Departments vary on what constitutes use of force,” Torres continued. “Even how much time police departments devote to self-defense training itself varies significantly.”
But was there a need for self-defense in Cannon’s case if he was already kneeling with his arms up? Or is it simply a matter of standard arresting policy and procedure for BRPD? If it is, Haley, Cannon’s lawyer says he wants the policies changed.
“I’ve talked to members of law enforcement. We talked about how that’s typical for a felony arrest stop, based on what the training is,” Haley said. “I definitely appreciate the candor, but then that tells me there’s a problem with the training. Just because you have a policy in place does not mean that that policy should be in place.”
Despite our multiple attempts, BRPD did not grant requests for an interview before we published this story, nor did the department agree to comment generally on use of force policy and arresting practices.
BRPD has praised itself for reforming its use-of-force policies in the wake of Alton Sterling’s death. When Weston-Broome was elected Mayor-President, she selected Murphy Paul Jr. to lead the BRPD under the mandate of updating its use-of-force policies and creating a more transparent department.
Two weeks after George Floyd’s death, Chief Paul and other senior officers held a news conference to share information on these reforms.
“We actively listened to our community and we were able to do that and make these changes without compromising officer safety,” said Chief Paul, who is Black and admitted to having “the talk” with his 16-year-old son about what to do when he encounters law enforcement.
But the incident involving Cannon — who is just one year older than Chief Paul’s son, and who was reported to be on the phone with his mother who was coaching him on how to deal with the police when his cousin stopped the car — has shown that there is more work to be done in Baton Rouge to forge a positive relationship between the Black community and police. And videos of officers kneeling on top of already-complying teenagers make that work much harder.
Chief Paul did not respond to requests for an interview and Mayor Weston-Broome denied our request, stating through her representative that she had spoken enough on the incident involving Cannon. With COVID-19 raging on in Louisiana and BRPD officers fatally shooting another Black man, the city’s leaders have refocused their attention on other matters.
For Cannon, that trust in law enforcement that the mayor and police chief have hoped to achieve may never be restored, if it existed in him at all, considering the rash of police-involved killings around the country in recent years.
Ron Haley, Cannon’s lawyer, says accountability would go a long way.
“You can be transparent all you want,” he said, acknowledging BRPD’s move to quickly release body camera footage of Cannon’s arrest. “But if these officers aren’t being held accountable for objectively bad behavior, then nothing is going to change culturally.”