The murder of George Floyd

'That could have been me': The people Derek Chauvin choked before George Floyd

They describe an officer quick to use force and callous about their pain.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is escorted by law enforcement near the Hennepin County Family Justice Center after a hearing for the four former police officers charged in the death of George Floyd,
David Joles | Star Tribune via AP

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, and The New York Times. Sign up for The Marshall Project’s newsletter, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

Story by Jamiles Lartey and Abbie VanSickle | The Marshall Project

Nearly three years before the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd as he cried that he couldn’t breathe last May, Zoya Code found herself in a similar position: handcuffed facedown on the ground, with Chauvin’s knee on her.

The officer had answered a call of a domestic dispute at her home, and Code said he forced her down when she tried to pull away.

“He just stayed on my neck,” Code said, ignoring her desperate pleas to get off. Frustrated and upset, she challenged him to press harder. “Then he did. Just to shut me up,” she said.

Last week, a judge in Minnesota ruled that prosecutors could present the details of her 2017 arrest in their case against the former officer, who was charged with second-degree unintentional murder in Floyd’s death.

Code’s case was one of six arrests as far back as 2015 that the Minnesota attorney general’s office sought to introduce, arguing that they showed how Chauvin was using excessive force when he restrained people by their necks or by kneeling on top of them — just as he did in arresting Floyd. Police records show that Chauvin was never formally reprimanded for any of these incidents, even though at least two of those arrested said they had filed formal complaints.

Of the six people arrested, two were Black, one was Latino and one was Native American. The race of two others was not included in the arrest reports that reporters examined.

Discussing the encounters publicly for the first time in interviews with The Marshall Project, three people who were arrested by Chauvin and a witness in a fourth incident described him as an unusually rough officer who was quick to use force and callous about their pain.

The interviews provide new insight into the history of a police officer whose handling of Floyd’s arrest, captured on video, was seen around the world and sparked months of protests in dozens of cities.

Chauvin, who was fired, has said through his attorney that his handling of Floyd’s arrest was a reasonable use of authorized force. But he was the subject of at least 22 complaints or internal investigations during his more than 19 years at the department, only one of which resulted in discipline. These new interviews show not only that he may have used excessive force in the past, but that he had used startlingly similar techniques.

All four people who told of their encounters with Chauvin had a history of run-ins with law enforcement, mostly for traffic and nonviolent offenses. Code’s arrest occurred on June 25, 2017. Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric J. Nelson, did not respond to a request for comment, but in a court filing said the officer acted properly in the case, responding to “a violent crime in a volatile situation.” He said that “there was nothing unreasonable or unauthorized about Mr. Chauvin’s actions.”

Code’s mother had accused her of trying to choke her with an extension cord, according to the arrest report. Code said in an interview that her mother was swinging the cord around, and that she merely grabbed hold of it.

She said she had left the house to cool off after the fight and when she returned, Chauvin and his partner had arrived. In the prosecutors’ description of the arrest, based on Chauvin’s report and body-camera video, Chauvin told Code she was under arrest and grabbed her arm. When she pulled away, he pulled her to the ground face first and knelt on her. The two officers then picked her up and carried her outside the house, face down.

There, prosecutors said, Chauvin knelt on the back of the handcuffed woman “even though she was offering no physical resistance at all.”

Code, in an interview, said she began pleading: “Don’t kill me.”

At that point, according to the prosecutors’ account, Chauvin told his partner to restrain Code’s ankles as well, though she “was not being physically aggressive.” As he tied her, she said, she told the other officer, “You’re learning from an animal. That man — that’s evilness right there.”

Chauvin’s partner in that arrest declined to comment. Misdemeanor domestic assault and disorderly conduct charges filed against Code were ultimately dropped. 

The earliest incident in which prosecutors said Chauvin used excessive force took place on Feb. 15, 2015, when he arrested Julian Hernandez — a carpenter who was on a road trip to Minneapolis to see a band at the El Nuevo Rodeo nightclub. Chauvin worked as an off-duty security officer there for almost 17 years.

The arrest report filed by Chauvin said Hernandez tried to leave the club through the wrong door, and Chauvin stopped him and escorted him down a stairwell. Hernandez said in an interview that he had been drinking, but felt like Chauvin was pushing him down the stairs.

Outside, Hernandez said, “things escalated.”

Chauvin’s report said that Hernandez tried to turn around as he was preparing to handcuff him, so he pushed him away “by applying pressure toward his Lingual Artery” at the top of the neck.

Hernandez said the officer told him “you just need to leave,” and he remembered thinking that he was trying to leave but was not being allowed to do so. As Chauvin pushed him into a wall and grabbed him by the throat, Hernandez recalled thinking, “You’re choking me.”

Hernandez said he tried to sue the department, but no lawyer would take his case so he let it go. He was charged with disorderly conduct, but under a court agreement he avoided punishment by staying out of trouble for a year, records show.

Nelson, the officer’s lawyer, said in a court filing that there was no evidence that Chauvin acted improperly in “dealing with a resistant, aggressive arrestee by himself.”

Under the judge’s order, only Code’s arrest, among the six cases showing what may have been excessive force, can be used at Chauvin’s trial. Prosecutors also sought to include two additional cases they said showed just the opposite — that Chauvin knew how to use reasonable force to properly restrain a person.

The judge’s order will allow them to use one of those cases: an incident in which the police department commended Chauvin and other officers for taking lifesaving steps in placing a restrained, suicidal man on his side so he could breathe. Chauvin even rode with the man to the hospital, according to prosecutors.

According to the attorney general’s office, the arrest showed that Chauvin knew how important it was to avoid breathing problems in detainees. When he did not put Floyd in a similar side position, prosecutors contend, he understood that it could jeopardize his life.

Chauvin’s lawyer objected to any of the previous arrests being admitted at his trial, which is set to begin in March. He argued that Chauvin’s actions “were not crimes,” but rather part of Chauvin’s job as an officer, and that a police supervisor at each arrest scene reviewed his use of force and concluded  that it comported with department standards.  

The Minneapolis Police Department did not respond to queries about past complaints against Chauvin. Critics say the department has a long history of accusations of abuse, but never fully put in place federal recommendations to implement a better system of tracking complaints and punishing officers. Only a handful over the years have faced firing or serious punishment.

In another case prosecutors highlighted to try to establish a pattern of excessive force, a man said he landed in the hospital overnight after an encounter with Chauvin. The man, Jimmy Bostic, had made a purchase at the Midtown Global Market in April 2016 and was waiting for a ride when private security guards asked him to leave. A different shop owner had accused him of panhandling, the arrest report said. Bostic argued, and Chauvin was called in.

Chauvin escorted Bostic outside, writing in the arrest report that Bostic had threatened to spit on the owner.

“I closed distance with” Bostic, Chauvin wrote, “and secured his neck/head area with my hands.”

Bostic said in an interview that as Chauvin and the private security guards attempted to put him in cuffs, he yanked his arm back.

“The next thing I felt was arms just wrapped around my neck,” he said. “I started telling him, ‘Let go, I’m having trouble breathing. I have asthma. I can’t breathe.’”

Chauvin’s lawyer, in a court filing, said the officer “acted reasonably” and followed police policy in restraining Bostic, who he said was refusing orders and making threats.

After he was released from police custody at the scene, Bostic said, emergency medical workers took him to a hospital. Suffering from an asthma attack, he said, he stayed for over a day. A disorderly conduct charge against him was ultimately dropped.

“Looking back on Floyd, that could have been me,” said Bostic, who is now in state prison on an unrelated burglary conviction. “And I would no longer be alive right now to even tell my story.”

Monroe Skinaway, a 74-year-old Minneapolis resident, was a chance witness to another incident prosecutors cited that occurred in March 2019. He said in an interview that he had called the police after he spotted his grandson’s stolen car parked at a South Minneapolis gas station.

As he answered police questions about the car, Skinaway said, he saw a young man wandering nearby, asking officers to give him a ride. Skinaway said the man seemed “off.”

The man, named in the arrest report as Sir Rilee Peet, 26, followed one officer to his squad car. After Peet refused to take his hands out of his pockets, the officer tried to grab him, and they scuffled, the police report said.

That is when the other officer, identified in the report as Chauvin, sprayed Peet with Mace. Chauvin restrained him by the neck and pinned him facedown on the ground by kneeling on his lower back, according to the prosecutors’ description of body-camera video.

Skinaway said he remembers seeing the officer on top of Peet, but also something not mentioned in Chauvin’s account in the arrest report. Skinaway said the officer put Peet’s head, face down, in a rain puddle. Other officers were present as well, he said.

“He said, ‘I can’t breathe — can I just put my head up?’” Skinaway said. “And they just held his face in the water, and I couldn’t see a purpose for that.”

Skinaway said he was about seven feet away as he watched Peet struggle for air, bubbles surfacing as he tried to breathe. He estimated that the officer kept Peet in the puddle for two to three minutes. Whenever Peet managed to turn his head for air, Skinaway said, the officer grabbed him by his long hair and put his head back in the water.

When he spoke by phone with a reporter, Skinaway said he did not know the officer’s name or that there was a connection with the Floyd case, but the details he described match those noted in the police report and prosecutors’ account.

Chauvin’s lawyer, Nelson, said in a court filing that the officer had acted according to police policy. “It was after midnight in South Minneapolis, and a man who refused to remove his hands from his pockets repeatedly approached the officers after being told not to,” he said. The filing said Peet’s actions had created concern for the officers’ safety.

Peet was arrested on charges of misdemeanor obstruction of the legal process and disorderly conduct, but it is unclear from court records what happened to the charges. The records show Peet has a history of court-ordered treatment for mental illness. In a phone call, Peet told a reporter that he did not recall the encounter.

Some of those whom Chauvin arrested said that learning the same officer had been involved in Floyd’s death made them regret they had not pushed harder to hold the officer and the department accountable.

“I don’t have nothing against cops, I got relatives that are cops,” said Hernandez, the carpenter arrested at the nightclub. “But he should have never been on the force that long.”

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