J. Alexander Kueng became a Minneapolis police officer to help the community, but prosecutors accuse him of doing nothing to help George Floyd when he and his colleagues fatally pinned him to the ground as he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe.
Those who knew Kueng struggled to reconcile that depiction with the person they knew as someone who spoke up to protect others in high school.
“It’s almost impossible to put words to it,” said Maria Cowan, who dated Kueng’s best friend for several years but eventually lost touch with Kueng. “It made me completely further question how people are trained in the police academy, because Alex always was the kind of person who would speak up,” Cowan said.
But Kueng didn’t speak up on May 25 when former officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, which the medical examiner determined was a factor in his death.
Kueng, who was working his third day as an officer, took Floyd’s pulse at the scene.
“I can’t find one,” Kueng said twice.
Yet, even knowing that, prosecutors argued, Kueng continued to help two other officers hold down Floyd’s “motionless body” for more than a minute after emergency personnel arrived.
“At no point during the incident did Kueng attempt to challenge Chauvin’s actions or intervene to assist Floyd,” prosecutors wrote in court documents.
Among peers from Minneapolis’ Patrick Henry High School, Kueng was known to speak up when someone took a joke too far or when students wouldn’t stop maligning a particular teacher who was the frequent target of private ridicule.
Classmates, friends and a former co-worker and teacher described the 26-year-old Kueng as a “happy-go-lucky” character who easily made friends with a racially diverse group. They recalled his love of soccer, his family and north Minneapolis where he grew up.
That made it even more surprising and difficult when they learned in May that Kueng, a person of mixed races who identifies as African American, was one of the officers who fatally restrained Floyd, who was Black.
Prosecutors charged Kueng in early June with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
People across the world swiftly condemned the officers’ actions when a bystander’s video recording of the arrest went viral on the internet.
The video showed former officer Tou Thao holding back several angry bystanders as Floyd, in handcuffs, struggled to breathe under the knee of Chauvin, who is white. Images taken from the opposite vantage point later revealed that Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back and officer Thomas Lane, who is white, restrained his legs.
Like Kueng, Lane and Thao are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. Chauvin is charged with one count each of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Those who knew Kueng grappled with the new image of him.
“It just makes me sad, because, first of all, the Alex I know — that’s just not who he is,” said Kevin Hohn, an English and language arts teacher who taught Kueng. “He’s not a monster. He’s not anything like that. He’s really not — not the kid I worked with.”
Legacy of service
Kueng was raised in north Minneapolis by a single mother, who is white.
He grew up surrounded by a legacy of education and community service. His mother taught at Patrick Henry and his maternal grandfather had been a counselor at the school. Kueng graduated from Patrick Henry in 2012.
His maternal grandparents, both in their mid-80s, served as missionaries in three different African countries.
Kueng, pronounced King, and his family declined to comment through his attorney, Thomas Plunkett.
Plunkett also declined to comment, but at Kueng’s first court appearance in June he gave an impassioned speech in an attempt to recast the narrative about his client.
“Mr. Kueng himself has traveled to Haiti where he worked in a mission, providing — working with children, providing medical care and building a school,” Plunkett said at the time. “His ties to the community are his entire life. … He has coached youth soccer and youth baseball through the community center.”
Kueng asked his mother for siblings, so starting when he was 5 she began adopting four “at-risk children from the community,” Plunkett told the court.
Friends recalled Kueng doting on his siblings, who are African American. They described Kueng as a good athlete who got along with everyone but had a small circle of close friends.
“He was quiet, but everybody knew about him,” said classmate Benjamin Hunter. “He didn’t start trouble with anybody.”
Hunter, who is also biracial and identifies as Black, said their social circles overlapped and included students who were Black, white, Hmong, Latino and Native American.
“We were a community of tolerance and peace, despite the city’s reputation,” said a Hmong classmate who asked not to be publicly identified for fear of public backlash. They later worked together at Macy’s department store.
Cowan said Kueng had a gift for academics, particularly mathematics and science, and for helping people. She described herself as painfully shy in high school.
“I had really bad social anxiety … but Alex was good at getting me to talk,” she said. “He would ask me a question on something I could talk about … [and] eventually the others would turn to our conversation and all of a sudden I was included in the whole group.
“It’s taken me a very long time to talk to strangers, and he helped make it a lot easier. And honestly, I don’t think he even knew he was doing that. I think he was just being a good person.”
Wanted to give back
When injuries spiked Kueng’s dreams to play professional soccer after high school, he worked security at Macy’s in downtown Minneapolis from 2014 to 2017.
His former classmate who also worked at the store said Kueng hadn’t lost his touch with people.
“Even with the shoplifters he caught he’d try to at least talk to them kindly,” the former classmate and co-worker said.
On a website created to raise money for bail and legal costs, Kueng’s longtime girlfriend, who is Hmong, said it was his time at Macy’s that prompted him to become a police officer to “give back” to the community.
“As a child growing up in that community [north Minneapolis], he saw the problems around him and decided to make a difference,” the website says. “Alex became a Minneapolis Police Officer to make his community a better place for his neighbors, classmates, and his 4 siblings.”
She declined to comment when reached by phone.
Kueng earned a sociology of law degree from the University of Minnesota in 2018 and a law enforcement certificate from Hennepin Technical College in 2019.
He worked overnight security at the U until December 2017, when he became a Community Service Officer with Minneapolis police, a non-sworn position often used to recruit new officers. He became a police cadet with the department in early 2019 and graduated from the police academy in December.
Hunter said some of his former classmates were upset when Kueng’s girlfriend asked them to help bail him out of jail.
“A lot of classmates were like, ‘Let him fry!’ ” Hunter said.
Hunter said he also was disappointed that Kueng didn’t intervene to save Floyd.
“When Alex was on top of George, I was like, ‘That’s us!’ ” Hunter said. “ ‘You’re the only brother there; you have to step up.’ ”
Kueng’s attorney has said he will try to focus blame on Chauvin, a 19-year-veteran who had previously served as Kueng’s field training officer after Kueng graduated from the academy and was in a probationary stage of his training.
Kueng eventually posted a bond in mid-June and was released pending trial, which is scheduled to begin March 8.
While former classmates and friends still think of Kueng fondly, they said criminal prosecution is warranted.
“It shouldn’t be swept under the rug,” Cowan said. “I’m terribly sorry that this is how events went down, but I wish him the best.”