Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino holds a unique place among elected officials in New York state, having served his county as elected district attorney, County Court judge and sheriff.
He said he thinks he’s probably the only person to ever hold all three jobs, and sometimes that obligates him to speak out on controversial legal and moral issues.
Thursday he issued a statement on social media weighing in on the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, who died after being held down by a knee to his neck by a police officer during his arrest.
Giardino, like many people, watched a video of the arrest, which has circulated widely throughout the news media and the internet.
“Minneapolis Death of George Floyd clearly chargeable as a homicide, in my opinion, based on my education, my training and my experience as a prosecutor, a judge and a sheriff,” Giardino said.
“Several videos are now out. Watching the man die without any apparent justification is both disturbing and disgusting. It deserves to be condemned.”
The officer who held Floyd down was fired and on Friday arrested and charged with 3rd-degree murder and manslaughter.
Giardino said he isn’t familiar with all of the complexities of Minnesota’s state laws, but if the incident had occurred in New York the evidence he saw on the video would constitute probable cause for an arrest and a homicide charge of some type.
“We get complaints about conduct of police all the time, and most of the time when you look into it they are unfounded, or they are half-truths — this one is clearly wrong,” he said.
The sheriff’s social media post prompted 308 reactions, 33 shares and 114 comments. Some people said the sheriff was rushing to judgment on the incident.
Giardino said all suspects are entitled to the presumption of innocence, but he is not judging the merits of a criminal case.
“I’m not looking at this as a guilty or innocent situation, I’m looking at it in terms of whether there is sufficient probable cause to charge a person, and there is,” he said.
But Giardino did offer his views on what evidence he thinks might come into play during a trial. He said the autopsy of Floyd will reveal whether he had any chemical substances in his body, which could have contributed to his death, but he’s skeptical of any defense that might argue Floyd could breath because he was speaking.
“You can gasp for air and still speak a little bit,” he said. “Interestingly, no other officers are rushing to assist the officer. This indicates to me that the other officers do not perceive that he is posing an immediate threat to the officer while he’s on the ground and the officer has his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck.”
In his social media statement Giardino said all police training “teaches, under the law, to use only the amount of force necessary to overcome the resistance being offered. There is a use of force continuum. This is also the law in NYS.”
Giardino said he issued an email Friday morning to all of his deputies reminding them to follow office protocol and cover up their uniform shirts coming to and from duty. He said he’s concerned that incidents like Floyd’s death can agitate tensions between law enforcement and racial minorities or other people angered at law enforcement officers.
He said the killing of Floyd should spark a national dialogue on race relations and law enforcement throughout the U.S., a dialogue he believes must be grounded in facts not emotion. Giardino cited statistics showing most crime occurs within a race, not between races, but a racial disparity still exists in police shooting incidents.
“Young black males are three times more likely to be shot and killed by police officers than white males,” he said.
He said the vast majority of the nation’s 750,0000 law enforcement officers enforce the law appropriately and have millions of safe contacts with the public every day. He said law enforcement should not be broadly condemned, just as the actions of peaceful protesters should not be stained by the actions of rioters who destroy and loot property as has occurred in Minneapolis.