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Derek Chauvin should not have knelt on George Floyd's neck after he stopped resisting, former sergeant testifies

MINNEAPOLIS — Derek Chauvin should not have knelt on George Floyd’s neck after he stopped resisting, a former supervisor testified Thursday.

Chauvin also failed to immediately tell the supervisor that he’d knelt on Floyd’s neck while restraining him during a police investigation — waiting more than 30 minutes until he stood outside the hospital emergency room where Floyd remained unresponsive to disclose the information.

David Pleoger, who was a supervisor in the city’s 3rd Precinct on May 25, 2020, testified that he called Chauvin after getting a call from a concerned 911 dispatcher who was watching a city security camera and saw police holding Floyd on the ground.

“She called to say she didn’t mean to be a snitch, but she’d seen something while viewing a camera that she thought was concerning,” said Pleoger, a retired sergeant.

In a phone conversation partially captured by Chauvin’s body-worn camera, the officer is heard telling Pleoger that the officers “just had to hold the guy down.”

“He was going crazy ... wouldn’t go back in the squad,” Chauvin said just before he shut off his body camera.

Pleoger testified that he told Chauvin to turn off his camera — which is allowed for a private conversation — and that the call continued, with Chauvin saying Floyd was “combative.”

Pleoger then went to the scene to investigate.

The former supervisor testified that Chauvin didn’t tell him in that phone conversation or later when he arrived at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, the intersection where Floyd died, that he had used his knee to pin Floyd to the ground. He said Chauvin told him Floyd had suffered “a medical emergency” while he was being restrained, which led to him being taken away by ambulance.

It was only at the hospital where he, Chauvin and Tou Thao — Chauvin’s partner that night who is also charged in Floyd’s death — had gone to check on Floyd’s condition that Chauvin told him he had knelt on Floyd’s neck.

“He said he knelt on Floyd or knelt on his neck, something of that nature,” Pleoger testified. He told prosecutors that Chauvin did not say how long he’d pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck.

Asked his “opinion” on whether that was an appropriate use of force, Pleoger told prosecutors, “When Mr. Floyd was no longer offering up any resistance to the officers, they could have ended the restraint.”

He confirmed that kneeling is a use of force, and that the restraint “should stop” once a subject “is handcuffed and no longer resisting.”

After learning that Floyd had died, Pleoger said he told Chauvin to “get down to 108,” a room in City Hall where officers gathered after a “critical incident.”

Chauvin is charged with second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter after he knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds as the man begged for his life, cried out for breath and ultimately went limp.

The other officers at the scene — Thao, Thomas Lane and Alexander Kueng — are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. They are scheduled to stand trial in August.

With Thursday’s accounts, prosecutors began to shift away from the anguished testimony of those who witnessed Floyd’s death to what and who caused it. Proceedings began with emotional testimony from Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, who talked about the man she knew and his struggles with opioid addiction, and also included accounts from emergency workers who responded to the scene and found Floyd “dead” beneath Chauvin’s knee.

Ross, who began dating Floyd in 2017, wept on the witness stand as she recalled for a jury the arc of their three-year relationship, from the first moment she heard the man’s “deep Southern voice” to their shared struggle with an opioid addiction that they had both repeatedly tried and failed to escape.

“Our story, it’s a classic story of how many people get addicted to opioids,” said Ross, 45, describing how they had both become hooked on the powerful pain medication after being prescribed it for injuries.

“We both suffer from chronic pain — mine was in my neck and his was in his back,” Ross testified. “We both had prescriptions. After the prescriptions were filled, we got addicted and tried really hard to break that addiction many times.”

Ross said they bought opioids, mostly OxyContin and oxycodone, off the black market and through street purchases.

“Addiction, in my opinion, is a lifelong struggle and something that we dealt with every day,” she said. “It’s something that doesn’t come and go. It’s something we dealt with forever.”

She also talked about how the 2018 death of Floyd’s mother left him “devastated” and brought about a noticeable change in him.

After Floyd’s mother died and he returned from his native Houston, “he seemed like a shell of himself,” Ross said.

“He seemed broken,” she added. “He seemed so sad. He didn’t have the same kind of bounce that he had. He was devastated.”

Ross recalled the first time she met Floyd. She told the court how she was waiting on her son’s father in the lobby of a Salvation Army shelter when she first noticed a security guard walking up to her. She was upset and tired, but was comforted by the “great, deep Southern voice” that came from the man’s mouth.

“He’s like, ‘Sis, are you OK, sis?’ I said, ‘No, I’m just waiting for my son’s father.’ He said, ‘Can I pray with you?’ ” she testified. “I was so tired, and we had been through so much ... and this kind person coming up to me saying, ‘Can I pray with you?’ when I felt alone in this lobby, it was so sweet.”

Ross said she had lost faith in God around that time, and that Floyd gave new life.

Ross was the first person called in who personally knew Floyd. Her testimony was designed not only to humanize Floyd but to contrast the defense narrative of him as out-of-control and dangerous. The talk about his struggle with substance abuse was to establish for the jury his tolerance for opioids as prosecutors begin to challenge Chauvin’s theory of the case.

Chauvin’s defense has argued that Floyd did not die because of the former officer’s knee but rather from a combination of underlying health issues, adrenaline rushing through his body and a drug overdose, citing an autopsy that recorded high levels of fentanyl and other substances in Floyd’s system.

The Ross said the two tried to stop using several times and went through treatment programs. But in March 2020, they relapsed. Under defense questioning, Ross said Floyd was admitted to the hospital after she had gone to pick him up for work and found him in pain.

She later learned that Floyd had overdosed and said they had taken pills that month that seemed to be different — more of a “stimulant” rather than those they normally took.

She also testified that Floyd had tested positive for the coronavirus in late March 2020.

Afterward, the jury heard from emergency workers who responded to the scene — including two paramedics who testified they believed Floyd was dead as they observed him lying motionless under the weight of three police officers.

Derek Smith, a paramedic with Hennepin County EMS, recalled checking Floyd’s pulse, as Chauvin’s knee remained on his neck, and not finding one. He also checked the man’s pupils, which were dilated.

“I looked to my partner, I told him, ‘I think he’s dead,’ ” Smith testified. “In a living person, there should be a pulse there. I did not feel one.”

Seth Bravinder, another paramedic, said he’d already suspected Floyd was dead, just from looking at him because he wasn’t breathing. The jury was shown video of Bravinder nudging Chauvin to get the officer to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck so that he could be loaded onto a gurney.

Bravinder recalled grabbing Floyd’s head to keep it from slamming onto the pavement because he was “limp.”

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NH schools must return to full in-person learning April 19, governor says
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K-12 public schools must hold in-person classes five days a week starting April 19, Gov. Chris Sununu announced Thursday.

During a news conference, Sununu said that 60 percent of New Hampshire schools are already offering full-time in-person classes. Now, the remaining 40 percent will have just over two weeks to prepare to return to a normal schedule.

“We have said all along, and it has been proven, that schools can reopen safely, and that remains as true today as ever,” Sununu said during the news conference. “In a few short weeks, all teachers and school staff who want the vaccine will have received their second dose.”

He also said that getting kids back into school isn’t just an educational concern, but also a matter of mental health and socialization. Remote learning was a good substitute in the early days of the pandemic, he said, but it doesn’t compare to physically being in a classroom.

Districts will still be able to offer a remote option to students who aren’t yet comfortable returning, Sununu added.

Monadnock Regional School District Superintendent Lisa Witte said Thursday evening she had no idea the governor’s announcement was coming. Though she declined to discuss the matter in detail with The Sentinel — having not yet seen the full written copy of the order — she said it was “frustrating” to learn about it without any notice.

“It is frustrating to find out about something so impactful to our schools via press conference,” she said in an email, “but unfortunately this has become the norm.”

Meanwhile, state Republicans are lauding the governor’s decision. The N.H. Republican State Committee posted on Facebook shortly after the announcement: “Governor Chris Sununu’s steady leadership has ensured our students are returning to the classroom with a safe & quality education throughout the Granite State!”

In February, Sununu announced that all public schools would need to offer in-person classes at least two days a week by March 8.

That date was just shy of a year after he ordered schools to go remote, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, though most have since either returned full-time to in-person instruction or have been working under a hybrid model.

In the Monadnock Region, most schools are using some form of hybrid approach, with in-person learning ranging from two to four days each week.

Some local schools have already returned to full-time in-person schedules, while some others still using hybrid models were in the process of transitioning back to in-person learning prior to Thursday’s announcement.

Superintendent Robert Malay said many of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29’s schools have already returned to four days of in-person classes, and the SAU — which includes Keene and six nearby towns — has been working on plans to get all schools back to five days per week.

However, he took issue with the governor’s statement that all teachers and school staff who wish to be vaccinated would be by April 19. While many people will have gotten their second dose by then, he said, there’s a 14-day window between when someone receives their final dose and when they’re considered fully inoculated.

“I do know for certain that many staff members received dose one this past week,” Malay said. “They will not be fully vaccinated until April 30 or May 1.”

Teachers became broadly eligible for vaccinations on March 12.

Malay also said the change will present teachers with a challenge, as they will have to prepare for a full return on top of their current workload. Pushing the return date back a week to align it with most districts’ spring breaks would have given schools and teachers “the gift of time,” he added.

Malay said he also has concerns about maintaining the three feet of social distancing required in schools with all students on campus at the same time. It’s not so much an issue within classrooms, he said, as with transportation, and in cafeterias and other places where students congregate.

Witte and Malay weren’t the only ones with concerns about the manner in which Thursday’s news was broken. In a press release, American Federation of Teachers-N.H. President Doug Ley criticized Sununu’s decision as being “done on a whim and based upon incomplete and inaccurate information.”

Ley, who is also a Democratic state representative from Jaffrey and associate professor at Franklin Pierce University, echoed Malay’s concerns about social distancing — specifically on buses and in cafeterias — and the extent to which teachers will be fully vaccinated by April 19. And like Witte, Ley decried the lack of communication with state education leaders.

“As with the Governor’s prior announcements, school districts were already making their plans, knowing the particulars of their local district, before the governor issued his heavy-handed state mandate,” Ley said in the release. “Instead of working with local districts, the Governor has once again tried to swoop in for credit while leaving school districts to do the real work.”

Sununu: no vaccines for out-of-state college students

Gov. Chris Sununu remains adamant that out-of-state college students should not be included in New Hampshire’s current vaccine plan, even as the mayors and administrators of college towns are asking him to develop a plan to give vaccines to students who are from out of state.

“The logistics of students leaving the state for vaccinations and returning to our communities creates the potential for increased spread of the virus among our citizens,” said the letter, dated Thursday and signed by leaders in Manchester, Nashua, Keene, Hanover, Plymouth, Henniker, New London and Durham.

Sununu said New Hampshire residents “have to come first” and that the out-of-state students are “not included in the mathematics that the federal government uses to provide us with the vaccine.”

Specifically, Sununu said U.S. Census data does not include out-of-state students in the states where they go to school and claimed the state is thus not getting enough vaccine supply to cover those students.

In fact, according to the U.S Census website, students are counted at the address where they reside while attending college.

Sununu also said he was unaware of other states vaccinating out-of-state college students. But every other New England state has now included out-of-state college students in their vaccine plans.

Vermont announced this week that out-of-state students will become eligible for vaccines April 30. And the Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner said Thursday that out-of-state students fit the state’s residency requirements.

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Evidence of virus variants could come from Keene's sewage

Keene State College researchers will now be able to chart the potential presence in the city of two more-contagious variants of the virus that causes COVID-19, as part of the school’s wastewater testing project.

The college, in collaboration with the city, has been collecting sewage samples to be tested for the virus since the beginning of the school year. But for the first time this week, the company that tests the samples — Florida-based Geosyntec Consultants, which has offices throughout New England — is able to detect the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants, which were first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, respectively.

“Because we are taking in the whole town, it’s a great surveillance tool,” said Jeanelle Boyer, a Keene State public health professor who helps lead the project. “So if [the variants are] out there, there’s a decent chance that we’ll see it, as opposed to having to sample every single person in town.”

Sewage samples collected this week in Keene will be the first to be tested for the two variants, so researchers have not yet gotten these results.

Thus far New Hampshire has identified 72 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant and no cases of the B.1.351 variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But, Boyer said, these numbers are likely lower than the real figures because relatively few people are tested for the variants individually, whereas wastewater testing will give a snapshot of an entire community.

Being able to test Keene’s sewage for these strains is a valuable addition to the college, and community, response to the pandemic, according to Wayne Hartz, a professor of safety and occupational health applied sciences who heads up Keene State’s COVID-19 Leadership Team.

“The ability to detect variants of COVID-19 in the city’s wastewater is important, because the data can be used to help predict the potential for increased spread of the virus in our community, which could impact the operations of the College,” Hartz said in a written statement.

“The data also serves as an important factor in our education program — it helps us to remind our community about the need to continue wearing masks, physically-distancing, and to follow the College’s health and safety protocols.”

Keene State publishes the results of the twice-weekly COVID-19 wastewater testing on its online coronavirus dashboard. Throughout the fall and winter, Boyer said, the data from the sewage samples largely mirrored case rates confirmed through individual tests.

“Our wastewater value stayed really quite high through December and January, which correlated nicely with the peak cases in the Keene area,” she said. “And then it dropped, also correlating with the cases. And now, it’s interesting. It hasn’t been super high recently, which is good, but there’s been a little bit of trending upwards, I would say.”

New coronavirus cases statewide have been increasing recently, following a steep decline beginning in mid-January, mirroring a national trend.

Wastewater testing is possible because certain viruses, including the novel coronavirus, are shed in fecal matter. The results of Keene’s wastewater testing are one of several metrics the college uses to guide its response to the pandemic, and researchers working on the project share the data they collect with city officials and staff at Cheshire Medical Center to help inform the community’s public health protocols.

A team of five Keene State professors collaborates with the city’s public works department to collect samples from two access points in the city’s sewer system — one that captures Keene State’s campus and the surrounding neighborhoods, including downtown, and another that covers the rest of the city.

Being able to detect these two variants now — and potentially more in the future, as Geosyntec continues to advance its testing capabilities — comes at a crucial point in the public health crisis, Boyer added.

“I think it’s important to know if that variant is present so that we can be appropriate in terms of our public health response,” she said.

For example, she said, some states are beginning to loosen public health protocols like mask mandates and social-distancing requirements, despite evidence that COVID-19 cases are starting to tick upward in many places.

“And a lot of public health officials are worried because, at this time, we haven’t yet vaccinated the number of people that we need to vaccinate to get herd immunity,” Boyer said. “And if there is a more transmissible, and potentially more severe, variant, public health officials are recommending that we don’t start opening up — that this could, in fact, create that third wave, another surge.”

And while Keene State is still waiting for the results of the first tests able to detect the variants, Boyer said she’s expecting to see both of the variants in Keene now, or in the near future.

“It would not surprise me at all to see the UK variant,” she said. “There have been limited cases of the South African variant in New England. ... I would most expect to see the UK variant, and if we don’t see the South African variant, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it at some point.”

If Keene’s sewage samples do show the presence of either or both of these variants, Boyer said, the results would only reinforce the need for measures like masking and limiting gatherings until more people can be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“It’s a really critical time right now, it feels like, because everyone is so done with the pandemic,” she said. “This pandemic fatigue is real, and people are ready to stop distancing and ready to stop masking, but with these new variants, it seems like it would be jumping the gun, so to speak, to get rid of the policies that are reducing spread.”