FORT MYERS, Fla. – A Lee County Sheriff’s Office deputy has been fired after telling an inmate he resembled George Floyd and asking him to say “I can’t breathe,” words Floyd spoke before dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.
Internal affairs reports released Wednesday showed appointments being withdrawn for Deputy First Class Rodney Payne for the Floyd comments. Payne’s firing came Aug. 26.
Allegations against Payne included two claims of improper conduct in July 2021 while he worked in corrections at the Core Facility Community Programs Unit.
An internal affairs investigation found Payne had made a remark to a specific inmate that he looked like George Floyd and asked him to say “I can’t breathe.”
Payne made the comment in the presence of his immediate supervisor.
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Payne’s comments alluded to Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died Memorial Day 2020 after a white officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes while trying to arrest him. A teenager captured the incident on camera.
In May, a federal grand jury indicted Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao in the case, nearly a year after the incident that sparked nationwide protests over police brutality and systemic racism.
Floyd, who was handcuffed and prone, repeatedly said “I can’t breathe” as Kueng and Lane helped restrain him and Thao kept bystanders away. In June, Chauvin was sentenced to 270 months, or 22 1/2 years, in prison for Floyd’s murder.
The Sheriff’s Office investigation found that Payne’s supervisor immediately told the deputy to stop the comments, saying it was inappropriate. Several inmates also heard the remark and one filed a complaint via email, he said, because the targeted inmate was likely to not complain in fear of retaliation.
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Asked during the investigation about his reason for making the comment Payne said it was his type of humor and later said, in hindsight, his remarks were insensitive.
Asked by another Sheriff’s Office supervisor if his remarks could have fomented a riot among inmates Payne said “yeah, maybe.”
Payne also answered “yes” when asked if he thought he had violated policy on the two improper conduct allegations.
Follow Michael Braun on Twitter: @MichaelBraunNP