One of the Minneapolis police officers who stood by and watched as George Floyd died was involved in a violent incident six years earlier in which he brutally beat up an unarmed, handcuffed man during an arrest before escorting him to jail in only his underwear and t-shirt, according to court records.
Officer Tou Thao was one of four officers fired Tuesday after his involvement in the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man who was filmed repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe while a white officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck. He lost consciousness and the video showed him being carried away completely limp.
A Minneapolis Fire Department report said Floyd did not have a pulse when he was loaded into an ambulance. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital shortly after in what police described as a “medical incident.”
“I would like for those officers to be charged with murder because that’s exactly what they did. They murdered my brother; he was crying for help,” Floyd’s sister, Bridgett Floyd, said in a Wednesday interview on the TODAY show. “I believe that justice will be served—I have enough faith to stand on it.”
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey on Wednesday called for the Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman to arrest and charge the officer responsible for Floyd’s death. “Why is the man who killed George Floyd not in jail? If you had done it, or I had done it, we would be behind bars right now,” Frey said in a news conference.
Authorities on Wednesday identified Thao and the other three officers involved—Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, and Alexander Kueng—in the incident that has sparked demands for a federal hate-crime investigation and prompted large protests. Local outlets reported that Chauvin was the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck—as Floyd pleaded “I can’t break” and “I’m about to die.”
Thao and Chauvin have both been involved in use-of-force incidents that resulted in complaints during their careers.
Thao has had a spotty career with law enforcement since he started with the Minneapolis Police Department as a community service officer. After going through the police academy in 2009, he was laid off a year later. In 2012, he returned to the department.
According to Minneapolis’ Communities United Against Police Brutality, six complaints have been filed against the now-former police officer—but no disciplinary action was ever taken. The details of the six complaints were not immediately clear.
In 2017, Thao and another officer were sued by Lamar Ferguson, 26, after Ferguson alleged the two officers used excessive force during an Oct. 7, 2014 arrest. According to the lawsuit obtained by The Daily Beast, Ferguson said the officers “punch[ed], kick[ed], and kn[eed]” him “to the face and body” while he was handcuffed. The incident was so violent he suffered “broken teeth as well as other bruising and trauma.”
“What happened back in 2017 was a pretty serious incident in my mind but it made no headlines—at all—and was not nearly as serious as what happened to George Floyd,” Seth Leventhal, one of Ferguson’s attorneys, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “But seeing that horrific video begs the question, ‘What did the police do internally in response to the 2017 incident?’”
The lawsuit alleged that in the early morning of Oct. 7, 2014, Ferguson was walking home with his girlfriend when the couple was stopped by Thao and another officer. The couple had just been to a hospital due to issues with Ferguson’s girlfriend—who was eight months pregnant at the time—and had taken a taxi home but asked the driver to drop them at Ferguson’s grandmother’s house so he could take out her garbage.
The two were stopped in the block-and-a-half walk from his grandmother’s home to his girlfriend’s home. The lawsuit, which said that the officers had no probable cause to stop the pair, began to search the pair without explanation.
Handcuffing Ferguson, Thao allegedly stated that there was a warrant out for his arrest—a claim the lawsuit said was false. While questioning him, the officers began to grab and pull the handcuffed Ferguson, before Thao threw him to the ground “and began hitting him.”
The lawsuit stressed that Ferguson was not resisting arrest, was unarmed, and was lying face down on the ground as the officer began the assault, even after Ferguson began to shout for help.
“Facedown on the ground and handcuffed, Officer Thao pulled [Ferguson’s] head up by grabbing the back of his hooded sweatshirt,” the lawsuit stated, while the other officer kicked him in the mouth.
After the assault, the two officers took Ferguson to a hospital for medical treatment. Ignoring the hospital staff’s concerns that Ferguson should be allowed to get dressed before being discharged, the officers took him to jail in only a t-shirt and underpants, the lawsuit stated.
In an August 2017 deposition about the suit, Thao argued that the officers arrested Ferguson because of an outstanding warrant—and only began punching him after one of his hands slipped out of the handcuffs.
“At some point one of his arms, I believe it was the left arm, pops out of the handcuffs and he tries to pull away,” Thao said in the deposition obtained by The Daily Beast. “And he puts his hands on me and tries to give me a stiff arm in a way to try to get me off of him. After—at this point, he’s actively resisting arrest. He—so I had no choice but to punch him. I punched him in the face.”
Leventhal said that he never found out whether the officers were disciplined for their roles in Ferguson’s beating. The case was settled out of court for $25,000.
“We have a deep, profound systemic racism in the United States, and this is just one tentacle in this terrible story that we are all suffering from,” Leventhal said. “I don’t think this is just a problem with the police department—I think Ferguson’s case and Floyd’s case show a bigger problem with race in America.”
Thao is one of four officers who responded to the scene of a suspected “forgery in process” on Monday night. In the explosive 10-minute video recorded by a bystander, Thao is seen standing guard and trying to keep upset bystanders at bay while Chauvin presses his knee on Floyd’s neck.
“Please, please, please, I can’t breathe. Please, man,” Floyd says in the footage that does not show the beginning of the arrest. “I’m about to die,” he says. Floyd was later pronounced dead at 9:25 p.m. Monday at Hennepin County Medical Center, the medical examiner told The Daily Beast.
Chauvin, a 44-year-old who joined the force in 2001, has been involved in several police-involved shootings throughout his career. According to Communities United Against Police Brutality, ten complaints have been filed against the now-former police officer—but Chauvin only ever received two verbal reprimands.
In 2006, Chauvin was involved in the fatal shooting of 42-year-old Wayne Reyes, who allegedly stabbed two people before reportedly turning a gun on police. Chauvin was among six officers to respond to the stabbing.
Two years later, Chauvin shot and wounded Ira Latrell Toles during a domestic violence call. Toles, who was 21, allegedly reached for an officer’s gun when Chauvin shot him in the chest. In 2011, the officer was also one of five officers placed on a standard three-day leave after the non-fatal shooting of a Native American man. The officers returned to work after the department determined that they had acted “appropriately.”
Chauvin and another officer were also chasing a car in 2005 that then hit and killed three people, according to Communities United Against Police Brutality.
The city’s Civilian Review Authority, which lists complaints prior to September 2012, shows five more complaints against Chauvin, which were closed without discipline. A prisoner at a Minnesota correctional facility sued Chauvin and seven other officers for “alleged violations of his federal constitutional rights” in 2006, although the case was dismissed and the details were not clear.
Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney representing Floyd’s family, said in a statement to The Daily Beast that while his office supported protests on Wednesday, which ended with clashes between police and demonstrators, “we cannot sink to the level of our oppressors and we must not endanger others during this pandemic.”
He added that his office would force “lasting change by shining a light on treatment that is horrific and unacceptable and by winning justice.”
In a virtual event on Wednesday, former Vice President Joe Biden called for a civil rights probe and demanded the officers be “held more fully accountable.”
“George Floyd’s life mattered. It mattered as much as mine, it matters just as much as anybody in this country—at least it should have,” he said. “Watching his life be taken in the same manner, echoing nearly the same words as Eric Garner more than five years ago—‘I can’t breathe’—is a tragic reminder that this was not an isolated incident, but part of an ingrained systemic cycle that exists in this country.”