The former Minneapolis police officer who stood by as three officers fatally restrained George Floyd told investigators he was focused on an angry crowd and trusted his colleagues to respond appropriately, according to a video released Friday.
Prosecutors filed the video of Tou Thao’s voluntary interview with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) in court this week to support their motion to try all four former officers in one trial. The 1-hour, 40-minute interview, recorded eight days after Floyd was killed, showed that Thao did not become visibly emotional while recounting the incident and appeared to distance himself from his colleagues’ actions.
In Minnesota, no interview with a police officer charged with killing a civilian on the job has been made public before trial until now; state law dictates that evidence submitted to the court at any point is public data.
Thao spoke frequently about the officers’ safety, only addressing Floyd’s well-being and bystanders’ concerns for Floyd when questioned by BCA special agent Brent Petersen.
“As the crowd is starting to grow and become loud and hostile toward us, I decided to forgo [monitoring] traffic and put myself in between the crowd and the officers … and just spend the majority of my attention looking at the crowd — make sure they don’t charge us or bull rush us as the officers on the ground are defenseless,” Thao said, adding that he was a “human traffic cone.”
Thao kept several angry bystanders at bay in front of Cup Foods as former officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for roughly 8 minutes while a handcuffed Floyd lay stomach-down in the street. Former officers J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane restrained Floyd’s back and legs after responding to a call that he had allegedly used a fake $20 bill.
Thao’s body camera video, released Thursday as part of a motion filed by his attorney to dismiss the case against him, showed that Thao was aggressive with bystanders and pushed two men who stepped off the sidewalk into the street.
In the BCA video, Thao was questioned about his professional history before spending about 12 minutes summarizing the events of May 25 without interruption. Petersen and BCA special agent James Reyerson asked him several questions afterward as his attorney, Robert Paule, and an FBI agent looked on.
During his summary, Thao said Floyd appeared to be on drugs, resisted getting into a squad car and kicked himself out of the squad onto the street.
Thao said his colleagues grew tired as they restrained Floyd on the ground, but he never voluntarily mentioned Chauvin’s actions, that Floyd repeatedly told them he couldn’t breathe and was going to die, or that several bystanders, including an off-duty Minneapolis firefighter, urged the officers to stop and to check Floyd’s pulse.
Nor did he say that the officers continued to pin Floyd after he became unresponsive.
“They’re trying to get control of his body,” Thao said. “I could tell the officers on the ground were getting tired. Everyone’s breathing hard …”
According to the video: Thao and Chauvin, who worked 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., were about to eat dinner at the Third Precinct when they heard a request from Kueng and Lane for backup.
“It sounded like it was something urgent, like they were struggling with somebody,” Thao said.
As the only squad available, Thao and Chauvin headed toward Cup Foods, where Kueng and Lane had arrived about 8 p.m. Halfway there, dispatch canceled the backup. But Thao, who was driving, said he was compelled to respond anyway “knowing the area” and because Kueng and Lane were rookies.
The corner is a gang hangout “especially hostile” to police, Thao said. Kueng and Lane were on their third and fourth day on the job, respectively.
Under questioning from Petersen, Thao said he first realized the seriousness of the situation when a firetruck arrived at the scene after an ambulance had already transported Floyd — a sign, he said that someone needed dire medical attention.
Kueng, Thao said, did not appear to understand the seriousness, either. Kueng recommended that they lock up the vehicle Floyd had been driving and leave it parked on the street instead of securing it and the scene as evidence. (Lane was in the ambulance with Floyd.)
“I stopped him …,” Thao said. “I don’t think he realized the gravity of the situation — potential situation, so I tell him, ‘No, we’re not gonna leave the scene.’ ”
Petersen pressed Thao about why there was urgency to arrest Floyd and whether, as a more veteran officer, he could have suggested alternative actions.
“Um, first, um, this wasn’t our call,” Thao said. “We were just the backup officers, so we don’t — I don’t have the back information as far as what happened prior to us arriving.”
Nearly an hour into the video, Petersen asked Thao what Floyd was saying as he was restrained.
“He was saying that he couldn’t breathe,” Thao said, “but then he was obviously yelling and talking.”
It was about that point in the recording that Thao addressed Chauvin’s actions.
“What did you see officer Chauvin doing?” Petersen asked.
“He’s struggling with the guy …,” Thao said, “ … his knees are moving depending on, like, the suspect that’s moving, between the back of the head, neck, shoulder blade.”
Petersen asked him about handcuffing techniques and whether he had been trained at Minneapolis police to use a knee in such encounters.
“So that maneuver you saw officer Chauvin use, is that something you’ve been trained in?” Petersen asked.
“I’ve never used it,” Thao said.
Petersen challenged Thao’s perception of the bystanders and walked him through learning about Floyd’s death.
“When you learned that Mr. Floyd had died, what’d you think?” Petersen asked.
“I don’t want anyone to die,” Thao said without displaying an obvious emotional reaction. “It was kind of a somber moment, especially for me. My heart kind of sank.”
Reyerson asked Thao whether he checked on Floyd at any point.
“No, because my job is scene security,” Thao said. “I would trust [the other officers] … God only gave me one body and two hands and two legs. I can’t be in two places at once, so.”
Thao, Kueng and Lane are each 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.