Medical experts: Floyd’s speech didn’t mean he could breathe

Madeline Curry attends a protest with her father outside the Minneapolis 5th Police Precinct while wearing a protective mask that reads "I CAN'T BREATHE", Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — As George Floyd repeatedly pleaded “I can’t breathe” to police officers holding him down on a Minneapolis street corner, some of the officers responded by pointing out he was able to speak. One told Floyd it takes “a lot of oxygen” to talk, while another told angry bystanders that Floyd was “talking, so he can breathe.”

That reaction -- seen in police restraint deaths around the country -- is dangerously wrong, medical experts say. While it would be right to believe a person who can’t talk also cannot breathe, the reverse is not true – speaking does not imply that someone is getting enough air to survive.

“The ability to speak does not mean the patient is without danger,” said Dr. Mariell Jessup, chief science and medical officer of the American Heart Association.

“To speak, you only have to move air through the upper airways and the vocal cords, a very small amount,” and that does not mean that enough air is getting down into the lungs where it can supply the rest of the body with oxygen, said Dr. Gary Weissman, a lung specialist at the University of Pennsylvania.

The false perception that someone who can speak can also take in enough air is not part of any known police training curriculum or practices, according to experts on police training and use of force.

“I’m not aware of any standard training of police officers that lets them know, ‘Hey, if someone is still able to talk they are not having difficulty breathing, so you can just keep doing what you are doing,’” said Craig Futterman, professor at University of Chicago Law School and an expert on use of force.

Floyd, a Black man who was handcuffed, died May 25 after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 8 minutes, keeping Floyd pinned even after he stopped moving. In the moments before he died, Floyd told police he couldn’t breathe more than 20 times.

A transcript from one of two police body camera videos released Wednesday shows that at one point after Floyd said he couldn’t breathe and was being killed, Chauvin said: " Then stop talking, stop yelling. It takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to talk.”