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George Floyd: Officers charged in death not likely to present united front

Facing decades in prison and a bail of at least $750,000, two former Minneapolis officers blamed Derek Chauvin, and a third has cooperated with investigators, their lawyers said

By Kim Barker, John Eligon, Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Matt Furber
Published: Jun 6, 2020

George Floyd: Officers charged in death not likely to present united front

A combination of photos provided by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office shows, from left, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. Minnesota officials charged the three former police officers on Wednesday, June 3, with aiding and abetting murder, court records show, in the death of George Floyd. (Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via The New York Times)

MINNEAPOLIS — Two of the former police officers charged with aiding and abetting in the killing of George Floyd turned on the senior officer accused in the case, making for an extraordinary court appearance Thursday afternoon. A third officer was cooperating with authorities, a sign that the four fired officers would not be presenting a united front.

Facing 40 years in prison and a bail of at least $750,000, former officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, both rookies, blamed Derek Chauvin, the senior officer at the scene and a training officer, their lawyers said in court. The lawyer for Tou Thao, another former officer charged in the case, said his client had cooperated with investigators before they arrested Chauvin.

Chauvin, a white 19-year veteran, was captured on a graphic video on May 25 kneeling for almost nine minutes on the neck of Floyd, who was African American, as the other three officers aided in the arrest.

Chauvin, 44, who did not appear in court Thursday, faces the most serious charges of the four men — second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

In cases of excessive force, it is not common for officers to break ranks, or cross what is often called the blue wall of silence. But little about this case is typical: Floyd’s death has unleashed a movement, with demonstrations in more than 150 American cities against police brutality and systemic racism.

The hearing — which unfolded blocks from where Floyd was being remembered in a packed, emotional memorial service — was sparsely attended because of threats from the coronavirus. Lawyers for the defendants were flanked by National Guard soldiers and Hennepin County sheriff’s deputies as they entered the courthouse. Judge Paul R. Scoggin and lawyers, when they addressed the court, were the only ones who did not wear masks. All three defendants wore orange jumpsuits and light blue surgical masks.

Earl Gray, the lawyer representing Lane, 37, told the court that Chauvin was a training officer for new officers. He said that the day Floyd died was Lane’s fourth day on the force.

“They’re required to call him ‘Sir,’” Gray told the court. “He has 20 years’ experience. What is my client supposed to do but to follow what the training officer said? Is that aiding and abetting a crime?”

Throughout the hearing, Lane kept looking over at seven people who were there to support him.

Tom Plunkett, the lawyer representing Kueng, 26, said Chauvin was his client’s main training officer. Though police records show that Kueng had become a police officer in December, he was only on his third shift as a full-fledged officer when Floyd was killed, Plunkett said.

The lawyer also argued that Kueng, who is African American, and Lane, who is white, had tried to stop Chauvin.

“At multiple times, Mr. Kueng and Mr. Lane directed their attention to that 19-year veteran and said, ‘You shouldn’t do this,’” Plunkett said.

Eric Nelson, a lawyer for Chauvin, declined to comment on what the lawyers for the other former officers said at Thursday’s hearing.

Plunkett specializes in defending police officers accused of crimes. But during the hearing he suggested that the Minneapolis Police Department had lost its way.

“The events of this case are horrific. The tragedy that flows from those events continues to grow,” Plunkett said. “I’m asking the court to set bail on the individual, on the person, and not on an institution that has lost its guidance.”

Robert Paule, the lawyer representing Thao, 34, said his client, who is Hmong, had met with state agents and surrendered his service revolver.

Still, Scoggin denied all the lawyers’ demands for reduced bail. The next court appearance for three of the former officers is scheduled for June 29. Chauvin is scheduled to be in court Monday.

The protests that have roiled the world began after a video released online showed Chauvin holding down Floyd until he was motionless. Police had responded to a 911 call that a counterfeit $20 bill was used to buy cigarettes at the Cup Foods corner store in south Minneapolis.

When Lane and Kueng arrived, they ordered Floyd out of a car, prosecutors say. Lane handcuffed him, and Floyd sat on the ground and said, “Thank you, man.” He was calm, the statement of probable cause said.

As they tried to walk Floyd to their squad car, he stiffened up and fell to the ground. Floyd told them he was not resisting arrest but was claustrophobic and did not want to get in the back seat of the car, according to the arrest affidavit.

Soon, Chauvin showed up, with Thao at his side.

Chauvin quickly took charge. Cellphone video showed that Chauvin placed his left knee on Floyd’s neck. Lane held Floyd’s legs, and Kueng held his back. Thao stood between the officers and onlookers, according to charging documents.

Calling for his mother and saying he was going to die, Floyd pleaded for his life, repeating, “I can’t breathe.”

Lane called on Chauvin to roll Floyd over, and warned that Floyd might be having a medical problem, Gray told the court. Still, the lawyer said Chauvin refused to do anything.

The four officers were fired the next day. On Friday, Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. But Wednesday, as hundreds of protests continued across the nation, the murder charge was upgraded and the three other former officers were also charged.

According to personnel records released late Wednesday, the four officers came to the force from different backgrounds, with some similar stops along the way. Two worked at McDonald’s and as security guards; two took college courses on marginalized communities and stocked shelves at stores; two earned the same degree at the same university.

Chauvin initially studied food preparation and once worked as a security guard and a cook for McDonald’s and a restaurant called Tinucci’s in the mid-1990s. He then took courses in law enforcement and served in the U.S. Army as a military police officer in the late 1990s.

He became a part time Minneapolis community service officer in 2001 and eventually a full-time police officer. Chauvin appears to have been reprimanded and possibly suspended after a woman complained in 2007 that he needlessly removed her from her car. She said he searched her and put her in the back of a squad car for driving 10 mph over the speed limit.

Chauvin was also the subject of at least 16 other misconduct complaints over two decades.

Thao worked his entire life, starting at a McDonald’s in the Twin Cities suburb of Fridley when he was 14. After graduating from high school, he became a stocker at a Cub Foods store in Crystal, Minnesota.

The following year, he started community college, taking classes like police and community and minority groups, transcripts show. After briefly working as a security guard, he dropped out of college about the same time he was hired as a community service officer with the police, in February 2008. He was laid off during budget cuts in December 2009, three days after becoming a full-fledged officer, and rehired in 2012.

Over his career, Thao faced at least six complaints. He and his former partner were also sued in 2017 by an African American man who claimed they punched, kicked and kneed him, leaving him with broken teeth and bruises.

Kueng graduated from high school in 2012. He then enrolled at Monroe College, where he studied business administration before transferring to a community college. He decided to major in criminal justice studies as he worked stocking shelves at Target and then as a loss-prevention detective at Macy’s.

Eventually, Kueng transferred to the University of Minnesota, where he majored in the sociology of law, criminology and deviance, transcripts showed. He seemed to want to tackle the world: He studied Russian and took classes like world religions and world politics and terrorist networks. In spring 2018, he also enrolled in American race relations.

After graduating in summer 2018, Kueng got his law enforcement certificate. By this point, he was already working part time as a community service officer for Minneapolis police. He joined the police academy, and became an officer in December. There are no records of any complaints against him.

Lane came to policing later in life. He did not graduate from high school, his personnel file shows, but he went on to get his GED. He worked a series of odd jobs from restaurant server to Home Depot sales associate to nightclub bouncer. He eventually went to Century College; in 2016, Lane graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in the sociology of law, criminology and deviance.

He also volunteered, helping Somali youth in the Cedar Riverside community. Lane started working in the criminal justice system as an assistant probation officer for juveniles and as a juvenile correctional officer. But in January 2019, he was accepted to the police academy, becoming an officer in December, records show.

While in college, Lane worked security from 2015 to 2016 at the Exchange, a nightclub in downtown Minneapolis. Ben Quam, who was the general manager, said Lane was so calm, regardless of the situation, that co-workers “made fun of him for always being so boring and even-keeled.”

The club usually had police officers stationed outside. Quam said he believed that gave Lane a chance to speak to them, building his interest in becoming an officer.

Quam said that he had not kept in touch with Lane, and that he was still trying to process how the man he knew could be involved “in one of the most horrific things I’ve seen.”

“Everybody’s just heartbroken that he could have been involved in something so awful,” Quam said.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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