Before Tou Thao became a Minneapolis police officer made infamous by the killing of George Floyd, he worked as a supervisor in a fast-food restaurant and security guard for a large medical device manufacturer.
Now, the 34-year-old former officer faces criminal charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
Thao served as a Minneapolis police officer for nine years before Floyd’s death.
When he was a rookie, a training officer cited him eight times for being dishonest or taking shortcuts. Over the years, he had six police conduct complaints filed against him.
Then in 2014, Thao and another officer were accused of punching, kicking and kneeing an unarmed Black man in handcuffs. The encounter occurred just a few blocks from where they would later encounter Floyd.
Thao’s decision May 25 to help two rookie officers on what seemed a routine call involving Floyd would be his last for the department. He and officer Derek Chauvin, his partner for the evening, could have skipped the call from a Cup Foods employee who reported that Floyd had tried to pass a fake $20 bill. As they headed to the scene, a dispatcher canceled the plea for help, saying the officers appeared to have the situation under control.
But Thao continued on. He and Chauvin found officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, each in their first week on the job, struggling to move Floyd into a cruiser. Chauvin, a 19-year veteran, stepped in to pin Floyd, stomach-down, by kneeling on his neck. Kueng knelt on his back and Lane restrained his legs as Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, eventually falling silent.
Thao stepped toward a growing, agitated crowd and waved along passing vehicles. He later told investigators with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension that he couldn’t really see what his fellow officers were doing.
Thao told the BCA he was too focused on guarding the scene. “I could have been more observant to Floyd,” he said.
In a Facebook Messenger exchange believed to be with Thao, he told the Star Tribune that he got a degree in law enforcement out of a sense of duty to help protect people and be a community resource.
“Especially to younger, low-income families because that’s where I came from,” Thao told the Star Tribune.
Thao’s involvement in Floyd’s death stirred division in the Hmong community. Although he’s not a member of the Minnesota Asian Peace Officers Association, it issued a statement about the incident on its Facebook page. It didn’t name Thao, but said the association strongly supports Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who immediately fired the four officers, and will continue to build bridges of trust that have been damaged.
On the association’s Facebook page, Samantha Xiong wrote that the statement needed a sharper edge.
“If y’all wanted to really hold each other accountable then y’all would have called TOU THAO flat OUT instead of dancing around the fire to make sure y’all don’t get dragged either,” Xiong said.
Maigna Thao, who isn’t related to the officer, said she had hoped for discussions about what went wrong in Floyd’s arrest and acknowledgment that police actions were inappropriate, “even if it means not being on the same side as your fellow Hmong police brother.”
Community activist Michael Thao, who is not related to Tou Thao, helped raise money for the officer’s bail so that he could be home with his wife and two young children. “Officers do what they have to do in the line of duty,” he said.
Like Thao, Lane and Kueng face charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s killing. Chauvin is charged with murder and manslaughter. Friends, family, co-workers and people close to Thao declined to be interviewed or couldn’t be reached for comment.
Robert Paule, Thao’s attorney, declined repeated requests for comment, but said on Saturday night that his client told him he never spoke to the Star Tribune through Facebook Messenger.
Brooklyn Park to jail cell
Tou Thao grew up in Brooklyn Park and now lives in Coon Rapids. A sign that says “Welcome Y’all” sits in the front yard, though a man who answered the door told a reporter to leave the property.
Several neighbors said Thao moved into his home with his extended family in 2018.
Personnel records show that after Thao graduated from Fridley High School, he worked as a grocery stocker, a trainer at a McDonald’s and a security guard.
Thao was hired in 2008 to become a community service officer with the Minneapolis Police Department, a program that works to improve employee diversity. The program paid for him to get a degree in law enforcement through North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park.
Shortly after completing the policy academy, he was laid off because of budget cuts. He worked security at Fairview Riverside Hospital in Minneapolis until he was rehired as a police officer in 2012.
Thao mainly had been assigned to the Third Precinct on the city’s South Side.
Even from the beginning of his career, his conduct showed signs of trouble.
Thao was criticized by his field training officer eight times his first year for incidents in which he was dishonest or took shortcuts to avoid certain activities like intervening in incidents that required a police response. In 2012 and 2017, Thao tried to manipulate domestic-abuse victims to avoid writing reports, according to court filings.
“His expediency and dishonesty” were the subject of an Office of Police Conduct Review complaint in 2017, state prosecutors wrote.
He has had six unspecified police conduct complaints filed against him, records show. Five were closed without discipline; one remained open at the time of his firing.
In 2017 Thao and another officer were the subject of a police brutality lawsuit by Lamar Ferguson, who alleged that in 2014 Thao and other officers beat him, breaking his teeth, while he was handcuffed during an arrest. The city of Minneapolis paid $25,000 to settle the case.
In a deposition for the lawsuit, Thao said Ferguson had resisted arrest and that he feared he could grab his gun or chemical repellent. He kneed Ferguson several times in the face and chest until he was subdued by the other officer.
“I would rather not use force and go the easier way,” Thao said in the deposition.
‘A horrible feeling’
Thao was calm and measured when two agents from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension interviewed him for two hours after Floyd’s death. Video from the interview was made public in August.
Thao told the agents that when he arrived at the scene, he surmised from Floyd’s behavior that he was high on something. But he quickly turned to the crowd, concerned they might rush the other officers.
Thao told investigators he didn’t know what had taken place before he arrived. Although Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, he said, police are trained that if a suspect can talk, then he also can breathe. He said he relied on the arresting officers to take care of Floyd.
The agents questioned Thao about the kneeling technique Chauvin used on Floyd. Thao said that he had never seen that move before but he knew that trainers have instructed officers to use their knee as leverage.
At the end of the interview, an agent asked Thao if he would have done anything differently. After a long pause, Thao said: “This is a horrible feeling, as an officer hopes to go through their career not dealing with a situation like this when someone dies. … It’s affected my family and taken a mental toll.”