George Floyd’s deadly Memorial Day encounter with the Minneapolis Police began when a rookie officer approached his car.
“Let me see your other hand! Both hands!” officer Thomas Lane shouted. When Floyd was slow to respond, Lane drew his gun and swore at him. “Put your [expletive] hands up right now! Let me see your other hand!”
It was Lane’s fourth day on the job. At 37, he had finally realized his dream of following three generations of men in his family to the Minneapolis Police Department.
Lane’s friends and former associates say they are shocked and surprised by his actions. The man heard yelling at Floyd on video is nothing like the person they thought they knew.
When 19-year veteran officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck to pin him to the ground, Lane helped by restraining his legs.
Yet, Lane is the only one of the four officers involved who raised concerns about Floyd’s health as he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, and asked Chauvin whether Floyd should be rolled on his side. And Lane later rode with an unresponsive Floyd in an ambulance, administering chest compressions in a futile attempt to revive him.
Now he’s fighting criminal charges as an accomplice to murder and manslaughter. A conviction could send him to prison for years.
Lane’s life, viewed through the lens of those who knew him, shows a quiet man challenged at times with personal struggles, yet driven by his desire to wear a badge.
Lane would not talk with the Star Tribune for this story, providing only a brief statement:
“Everything I had been doing for the last six years, had been working toward the goal of getting hired by MPD,” Lane said in the written statement. “It is the only department that I every [sic] applied to, and [the] only one that I ever wanted to work in.”
A damning debut
The public first saw Lane through the release of his mug shot when he was criminally charged as an accomplice barely a week after Floyd’s death, as protests against police brutality rocked the streets of Minneapolis and spread around the world.
Lane wasn’t a typical rookie like his partner, 26-year-old J. Alexander Kueng. But he followed three generations of men on his mother’s side of the family into law enforcement. His late grandfather, Donald Mealey, and great-grandfather, William Mealey, were Minneapolis police detectives. His great-great grandfather, Michael Mealey, was chief of Minneapolis Police from 1911 to 1912.
On May 26, the day after Floyd’s death, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo fired Lane, Kueng, Chauvin and his partner, Tou Thao. Chauvin is charged with killing Floyd. The others are charged as accomplices.
Lane next appears in Hennepin County District Court on Sept. 11 when his attorney, Earl Gray, will argue for the dismissal of the charges against him, noting that the rookie had challenged a senior officer and had actually released Floyd’s legs.
That’s the kind of behavior some who worked with Lane in corrections and service industry jobs before he entered police work say they’d expect from him.
Security work before MPD
As the general manager at the Exchange nightclub in downtown Minneapolis, Ben Quam hired Lane to provide part-time security in 2015. He described Lane as “unflappable” and a good fit for the “classy and relaxed atmosphere” Quam sought to establish at the club.
“Tom was one that would always try and de-escalate things,” Quam said. “It was just really hard to make him lose his cool.”
At 6-foot-5 with salt-and-pepper hair and a deep voice, Lane had an authoritative but soothing presence, Quam said. Lane made $800 a month working up to 18 hours a week at the nightclub while he attended the University of Minnesota. He described his job duties as greeting guests at the front door and checking IDs while assessing patrons for drug use and intoxication.
Quam said law enforcement seemed like a good fit for Lane.
“I thought that the idea of a police officer that could keep his calm and try and defuse situations would be exactly what a police department like Minneapolis would need,” he said.
Lane, who lives with his wife of two years in a modest home in New Brighton minutes from where he grew up, had spent two decades getting to that point. After dropping out of high school, Lane wrote that he spent three years on a traveling construction crew before he went back to get his GED.
“I basically disavowed the current friend group I had where drugs and heavy drinking were commonplace,” he said of those days. He worked at Home Depot in Minneapolis and enrolled at Century College in White Bear Lake with the intent of getting into its law enforcement program.
But he got a careless-driving charge his first week back at school and lost motivation, believing the arrest would cost him a shot at police work. Class work didn’t come easy to him.
“After a year of community college I had only tested equivalent to a junior in high school’s education so I had a long ways to go and was discouraged,” Lane wrote.
He spent a decade in the service industry, including five years working as a server and security at Brit’s Pub on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis from 2010 to 2015. In 2012, he joined several other servers in working the colder months at Acme Comedy Co. in the Warehouse District after Brit’s would close the outdoor patio for the season.
At Acme, Lane was known as “Big Tom,” owner Derick Johnson said. When Lane saw a co-worker having a problem with customers, Johnson said, he would jokingly offer to go give the table a hard time.
“He just wanted to make the server laugh when he was having a bad day,” Johnson said. “Because, you know, it’s hard to be a server.”
Johnson was shocked to see Lane charged in Floyd’s death.
“I was worried for him, to be honest, because I know that he is not a racist,” said Johnson, who added that he has read the transcripts but had not watched the video. “I didn’t really know what to think. It was just a shock.”
Chance to become cop
While at Acme, he also enrolled in a child development program at the U with an eye toward teaching. But he still thought about law enforcement. With an adviser’s guidance he realized he might still have a chance at becoming a cop, so he switched his major to sociology.
Lane also volunteered as a mentor to at-risk kids at Bel Air Elementary in his hometown from 2012 to 2014. Since 2014, he volunteered several hours a week in the summers for the Minneapolis Police Activities League, keeping urban kids physically and mentally active. And since 2016, he has tutored Somali students through Ka Joog, a nonprofit serving Somali youth in the Cedar-Riverside Neighborhood.
In May 2017, a few months after he graduated from the U, Lane got a job as a part-time assistant probation officer at Boys Totem Town run by Ramsey County in St. Paul. The facility, shuttered last year, was home to up to three dozen teenage offenders, many of them minorities.
Probation officer Mary Jo Dupre worked at Totem Town for nearly two decades and was known unofficially as “mom.” She remembers Lane fondly.
“I have nothing but good things to say about him,” Dupre said, describing Lane as a calm, hard worker who was liked by the kids and the staff. “We were sad when he left.”
Lane quit Totem Town when he landed full-time work as a corrections officer in Hennepin County’s Juvenile Detention Center in downtown Minneapolis. That was his last job before he signed on as an MPD recruit in early 2019. He spent a year in training before he worked his first and only week as a fully sworn officer in May.
Attempts to interview Lane’s closest friends and family were unsuccessful. In June, one relative, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, cried to a reporter. “Our whole family feels terrible,” the relative said. “This isn’t him. This isn’t what he worked all his life for.”
Former colleagues said the same.
Quam, the nightclub manager, said he was surprised at how Lane behaved early on in his encounter with Floyd, drawing his gun.
“That kind of aggression just made it look like, I think, Tom was scared,” Quam said. “I can’t speak to the contents of his heart but that’s really what it seemed like to me. … Unfortunately, someone lost their life over it, and tragically.”
Dupre said she was “heartbroken” when she learned Lane was involved in Floyd’s arrest. As someone familiar with police culture, Dupre said she was struck that Lane twice summoned the nerve to question Chauvin about Floyd’s positioning. That’s not done, she said.
“You don’t question; especially in the heat of the moment. It’s the same way in corrections,” she said. “Our hope is from now on that culture will change.”
Star Tribune staff writer Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report.