The world met Derek Chauvin, staring ahead impassively with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, through a bystander’s cellphone video shot as sunlight waned on Memorial Day in south Minneapolis.
Yet in the nearly two decades before Floyd’s death prompted worldwide outrage, Chauvin was a face in the crowd, patrolling the streets during night shifts in the city’s busy Third Precinct. Now charged with murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s killing, the 44-year-old fired Minneapolis police officer remains an enigma to colleagues and neighbors, and at least one family member who described being horrified by the video and said Chauvin’s behavior was out of character.
“The number one question I had was, ‘Why didn’t you just get up?’ ” said the relative, who asked not to be named over safety concerns.
Chauvin’s family is struggling to square the Chauvin they know with the man whose actions have sparked worldwide condemnation and demands for change.
Next-door neighbors say they barely saw Chauvin, discovering he was a cop only when reporters and protesters showed up in their Oakdale neighborhood. Former colleagues are confounded by how the unassuming veteran street cop became the city’s most notorious officer.
“He’s not the devil that he’s made out to be,” said Sgt. Joey Sandberg, who retired in 2018 after working three decades in the large Third Precinct that spreads across south Minneapolis. Sandberg called Chauvin a friend. “I don’t know what happened to him. Nobody knows. That’s the million-dollar question.”
Chauvin is in custody at a state prison in Oak Park Heights. His attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
‘A regular guy’
Chauvin’s work record details commendations for disarming gang members and intervening during domestic-abuse calls. Before pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck on May 25, Chauvin was also involved in two other deadly encounters with civilians and two nonfatal police shootings. Yet the 19-year veteran was disciplined just once out of 17 misconduct complaints logged since 2001.
Chauvin had an ordinary, middle-class upbringing in the St. Paul area, the relative said. His father is a certified public accountant. His mother stayed home to raise their children. They divorced when Chauvin was young.
After graduating from Park High School in Cottage Grove in 1994, Chauvin earned a certificate in quantity food preparation at Dakota County Technical College and worked jobs as a prep cook at a McDonald’s and a south metro buffet restaurant. Then he attended Inver Hills Community College and Metropolitan State University, where his focus shifted to police work.
Chauvin entered active service in the U.S. Army and did two stints in military police: in Rochester in 1997, and in Hohenfels, Germany, in 1999 and 2000. Jerry Obieglo, a former platoon sergeant stationed in Germany with Chauvin, remembers him as laser-focused on studying to become a police officer. Chauvin didn’t go out drinking and instead volunteered to be the designated driver.
“He was a regular guy, didn’t stand out, did his job, kept his uniform clean and kept his equipment accounted for,” Obieglo said. “I had no complaints.”
Chauvin joined the Minneapolis Police Department in 2001. Within five years he was recommended for a Medal of Valor following the shooting death of Wayne Reyes, a stabbing suspect who fled in his truck with officers in pursuit. Police said Reyes pointed a shotgun toward Chauvin and five other officers. The officers all fired on Reyes, killing him.
Chauvin’s one disciplinary action came in 2007 from a Minneapolis woman he had stopped on her way home from a grocery run. The woman alleged that Chauvin had pulled her over for going 10 mph over the speed limit, frisked her and put her in his squad car. Chauvin got a letter of reprimand for his handling of the stop and for not turning on his recording equipment.
A year later, Chauvin shot Ira Latrell Toles in the abdomen after responding to a 911 domestic-abuse call. According to an internal review, Chauvin later told investigators that he had tried to hit Toles in the head with the butt of his handgun because Toles failed to comply with commands to get on the ground. Chauvin said he shot Toles when he thought Toles reached for his gun. Toles’ ex-girlfriend reported that Chauvin fired his gun “about two seconds” after he entered the bathroom.
“If he was reprimanded for shooting me, then maybe more lives could have been saved,” Toles said in a recent interview.
Kristofer Bergh, now 24, was a high school senior in 2013 when he and some friends were driving home in south Minneapolis after school. They’d been playing a team Nerf-gun game, and one of his friends fired a dart out the car window. Seconds later, as they pulled up to Bergh’s home, Bergh said he turned to see a police car and two officers — one identified as Chauvin — coming at them.
One had “his gun drawn on me,” Bergh said. It’s unclear which officer drew his gun. Bergh said they yelled obscenities and demanded to know who fired the Nerf dart; they stuck his friend in the squad and berated him.
Another complaint was filed by Lasean Braddock, a former St. Paul resident now living in Chicago. Braddock, 48, said police stopped him as he drove home in 2013 from a double shift as a mental health worker at Hennepin County Medical Center. One of the officers was identified as Chauvin.
Braddock said he suspected they had mistaken him for someone who had been using his name. Braddock said the officer at his driver’s window, later identified by his lawyer as Chauvin, began hitting the glass with his flashlight when he hesitated to get out of the car. Braddock said the officers tried to force him to the pavement. He went down on his own to avoid injury.
Although the identity mix-up was somehow resolved at the jail, Braddock said, they booked him for failing to comply with police orders and resisting arrest. Prosecutors ultimately tossed the case.
Hennepin County Assistant Public Defender Jordan Deckenbach said Braddock was stopped on a bad warrant. The case was dismissed after the City Attorney’s Office watched the squad car video, he said. The aggression was “routine” for the Third Precinct then, he said, but Braddock’s case stuck out “because Chauvin went from zero to 60.”
Braddock said he’s still angry and was not surprised to learn that the officer at his car window that night was Chauvin. To Braddock, Chauvin was “running around like a loose cannon.”
Chauvin’s status today as an instantly recognizable flash point in U.S. police-community relations is belied by the unremarkable profile colleagues say he cut during nearly two decades on the Minneapolis force.
Lucy Gerold, a retired Third Precinct commander, remembers Chauvin as a hard charger who liked to keep busy. She said she never thought he was overly aggressive.
“If I had that sense, I know that I would have been working with his brass to intervene,” Gerold said.
Chauvin’s peers said he rarely opened up about his personal life, which is now under scrutiny by Washington County prosecutors. They allege that Chauvin and his wife, Kellie, skirted state tax laws for at least five years.
Kellie Chauvin filed for divorce after Chauvin’s arrest in Floyd’s death, and she is seeking to change her last name. The court sealed the case, citing privacy and safety concerns. A media coalition that includes the Star Tribune has protested the sealing in a pending motion to intervene.
The two met during one of Chauvin’s shifts, when Kellie worked at HCMC. They married in 2010. Kellie Chauvin, a refugee from Laos whose family moved to the Midwest in the 1980s, had earlier left an arranged marriage that turned abusive. She would later tell the St. Paul Pioneer Press that “under all that uniform,” Derek Chauvin was “just a softie.”
The couple owned and rented two homes in Woodbury between 2014 and 2017 before buying their Oakdale home for more than $260,000. They also bought a townhouse near Orlando, Fla., for $210,900 in 2011. Derek Chauvin is registered to vote in Florida.
In July, Washington County prosecutors charged both Derek and Kellie Chauvin with nine counts each of aiding and abetting tax evasion and tax fraud. According to the criminal complaint, the couple failed to report $464,433 in Minnesota income over five years and failed to pay $37,868 in taxes owed during that time.
The complaint also accuses the Chauvins of using their Florida address in 2018 to register a BMW X5 they bought for more than $100,000 in Minnetonka. They kept the car in Minnesota, where it was serviced, while not paying more than $5,000 in taxes for it, the complaint says.
‘I saw both sides of him’
After his police shifts, Chauvin worked security for bars and restaurants, making $220 to $250 a night — money Washington County prosecutors now say was not fully reported as income from 2014 to 2019.
Maya Santamaria, former owner of the El Nuevo Rodeo nightclub where Chauvin worked for many years, described him as a “mellow” guy who didn’t talk much about himself. But he was also quick to get aggressive, she said, especially on events that El Nuevo Rodeo marketed to attract Black customers.
“I saw both sides of him,” Santamaria said. “Pepper spraying everybody, sometimes using holds that were not apparently the most legal of holds, getting freaked out if there were a lot of Black clientele in our club and needing backup right away for no apparent reason.”
Several people interviewed for this story noted that Chauvin chose to remain on his intense patrol beat much longer than most officers do. That can affect someone, they said.
“Nineteen years on the street is a long time, period,” said former MPD Chief Janeé Harteau. “And 19 years in mostly the same place on the same shift is too long.”
In footage of Floyd’s final moments alive, Chauvin appears to lose his cool only when onlookers moved toward him as he knelt on Floyd’s neck.
“Don’t come over here! Don’t come over here!” Chauvin shouted as he pulled out his pepper spray. He quickly stowed it as another officer stepped in to fend off the crowd.
As Floyd yelled out for his mother and said he couldn’t breathe, Chauvin replied: “You’re doing lots of talking. A lot of yelling. It takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to say that.”
Chauvin’s relative told the Star Tribune that they couldn’t finish the video in one sitting. It was too hard.
Obieglo — Chauvin’s old platoon sergeant and a reference on his application with MPD — realized the officer in the bystander video was Chauvin only when he stood, walking as if he were still deployed back in Germany.
“As my old Bible teacher used to say, the road to Hell was paved with good intentions. And I think old Derek was on the highway to Hell when he did what he did.”