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Derek Chauvin: Officer’s aggressive behavior raises questions about excessive off-duty police work as trial approaches

A police officer stands behind a burning building near East Lake Street on Friday, May 29, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

MINNEAPOLIS — Derek Chauvin spent his nights patrolling the streets of Minneapolis's sprawling 3rd Precinct, the toughest shift in a busy neighborhood with a reputation for aggressive cops. But his work did not stop there.

After responding to 911 calls for 10 hours a night, four days a week — a grueling schedule that he maintained for most of his 19-year career — Chauvin, 44, moonlighted as a security guard at nightclubs, restaurants and a grocery store, working on the same streets he policed.

The veteran officer earned a $72,000 city salary in 2019 and was paid nearly double that rate — around $60 an hour — for some of his off-duty gigs, according to court records. There was other side work, too, including a 2017 stint selling real estate in the suburbs.

It was the kind of packed schedule that came under city leaders’ scrutiny just months before Chauvin infamously pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck last May.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (D), who has administrative power over the police department, convened a task force in February 2020 to study how long hours affected officers’ physical and mental health and might prompt the kind of mistakes and aggression that could corrode their relationships with the community.

But the coronavirus pandemic put the task force’s work on hold indefinitely. A report on limiting off-duty work was expected last summer; instead, the city became the epicenter of global protests and a national reckoning on race and policing.

The practice of off-duty policing is likely to attract fresh scrutiny in the coming weeks as Chauvin, who is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death, prepares to stand trial in Minneapolis. On Friday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ordered the judge overseeing Chauvin’s case to consider adding a third-degree murder charge, as well — a ruling that could ignite a new wave of legal wrangling that threatens to delay the start of the trial.

Prospective prosecution witnesses include several people who crossed paths with Chauvin during his off-duty work, including at least one who hired him and others who worked at or patronized businesses where Chauvin moonlighted. Prosecutors could use those witnesses to raise questions about Chauvin’s aggressive policing across his on- and off-duty work, an issue that could have been heightened by working the same streets night after night, experts said.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin on Monday.

Released on a $1 million conditional bond in October, Chauvin has not spoken publicly about the charges. But he has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney Eric J. Nelson has argued that the veteran officer was not violating department policy as he held Floyd against the pavement for more than nine minutes.

That argument is familiar to former nightclub owner Maya Santamaria. She had heard complaints about Chauvin’s harsh behavior toward patrons during the roughly 14 years he worked off-duty security at El Nuevo Rodeo nightclub, a block from the 3rd Precinct. Santamaria recalls the officer dismissing her concerns about his conduct, saying, “It’s protocol.”

It is unclear whether Chauvin’s confrontational style was a symptom of overwork or simply who he was. As other officers on late-night shifts graduated to daytime patrols or senior jobs with better hours and less stress, Chauvin chose to stay on the grueling night beat, former colleagues say. During that time, he displayed behaviors both on and off duty that some saw as red flags.

In 2007, Chauvin was accused of pulling a woman out of her car after she was stopped for driving 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, according to heavily redacted personnel files released by the police department last summer. Supervisors reprimanded Chauvin for using unnecessary tactics and faulted him for not turning on his squad car video during the stop. The department issued a letter of reprimand but did not disclose further discipline.

In February 2015, Chauvin grabbed a nightclub patron by the throat and pushed him against a wall, saying the allegedly intoxicated man had ignored repeated orders to leave, according to a police report Chauvin wrote. Prosecutors in the Floyd case cited the incident as evidence of a pattern of brutal handling of people that Chauvin “believes are not perfectly complying with his demands” and of his tendency to go beyond “reasonable force.”

And in April 2016, Chauvin wrote in a police report that he used a neck restraint to forcibly remove a man from the Midtown Global Market, where the officer was providing off-duty security. He called an ambulance after the man, whom an employee had accused of panhandling, “claimed he had asthma,” Chauvin wrote in the police report. He added that the man “was yelling the entire time.” The officer made a similar statement to Floyd as he complained of struggling to breathe, telling him that “it takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to talk,” according to the body camera video.

In pretrial motions, prosecutors sought the court’s permission to introduce evidence at trial of what they say are at least eight incidents between 2014 and 2019 in which Chauvin had used neck or body restraints on suspects, including three that occurred while he was off duty. In four of the cases, prosecutors claimed, Chauvin restrained suspects “beyond the point when such force was needed.”

But Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, argued that his client had done nothing wrong. He said the former officer had reported his use of force in each incident, and “in every single one, it was determined by a supervisor that Mr. Chauvin’s use of force was reasonable in the circumstances and authorized by law and MPD policy.”

Hennepin County District Judge Peter A. Cahill, who is overseeing the case, blocked prosecutors from citing all but two past incidents in which Chauvin allegedly applied knee restraints or other uses of force.

Long before Floyd’s death, Chauvin was among the various officers, many from the 3rd Precinct, on the radar of the Hennepin County public defender’s office, where attorneys frequently watch body camera videos related to the arrests of their clients. Former chief public defender Mary Moriarty recalls reviewing several cases involving Chauvin, including one in which video showed him shoving a woman to the ground inside a Target store during an arrest, she said — a reaction Moriarty believed was unnecessary. She said she had noted the behavior of several Minneapolis officers — Chauvin among them — but no one had intervened.

The Minneapolis police department has refused to comment on anything related to Chauvin’s case.

“Everybody’s attention is attracted to George Floyd, as it should be, but so much of the daily interaction that we see on bodycam is so disrespectful and damaging,” Moriarty said.

Fighting police fatigue

The last Minneapolis police officer to be tried on a murder charge was Mohamed Noor, a then-33-year-old Somali American officer who in 2017 shot and killed 40-year-old Justine Damond, a White woman, as she approached his squad car after making a 911 call about a possible sexual assault behind her home.

During the 2019 trial, prosecutors revealed that Noor had worked a seven-hour security job at a bank before clocking in for his regular 4 p.m.-to-2 a.m. police shift — raising questions about fatigue and his judgment.

Noor was convicted — a first for an on-duty fatal shooting by a Minneapolis officer. He is serving a 12 ½ year sentence for third-degree murder and manslaughter.

There is no official accounting and no system for tracking off-duty hours or deterring officers from working too much, according to a 2019 city audit. Although officers are forbidden to work more than 64 hours per week both on- and off-duty, unlike many cities, Minneapolis does not limit work hours in a 24-hour period or have a rest requirement for officers ahead of their on-duty shifts.

While Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and other city officials have raised concerns about the hours officers put in on off-duty jobs, they have also suggested that uniformed officers working in neighborhoods and businesses after hours can help deter crime.

The issue has been debated sporadically since 1994, when Minneapolis officials first voiced concern about the growing number of lawsuits related to off-duty police work. Minneapolis has paid millions since then to settle suits accusing officers of assault and other misconduct while off the clock, including a nearly $1 million payout in December to a man who said he suffered a traumatic brain injury during a 2017 altercation with an off-duty officer.

While officers negotiate their own off-duty schedules and pay with private businesses, the city remains liable for their actions.

“Officers working off-duty wear the Minneapolis Police Department uniform,” Frey said at the February 2020 news conference announcing the task force. “They often have MPD squad cars when they’re off duty. They are expected to respond to calls for help when they’re off duty. And the city is liable for our off-duty officers.”

Frey and other city leaders have pointed to studies showing that officers who regularly worked long hours were left fatigued and emotionally drained, putting them at higher risk of injury to themselves and others.

“Creating a context for people to do lots and lots of work outside of their full-time jobs doesn’t necessarily lead to the best decision-making or the healthiest workers,” said Steve Fletcher, a Minneapolis city councilman and task force member who has long called for reforms to the off-duty system.

Frey said in a statement that officer “wellness” remains a priority for his administration and that the city is working to “enhance oversight” of off-duty work.

Dennis Kenney, a former police officer who teaches criminal justice at John Jay College in New York, said fatigue impacts cognitive function, likening it to people impaired by alcohol. He said officer fatigue makes it harder to concentrate and react and increases bad judgment and anger issues on the job.

On top of that, officers like Chauvin who work off-duty hours in the same precinct where they patrol a high-crime beat might heighten their mental health risks and aggression toward the people they police, Kenney said.

“If you’re in an environment where you’re constantly reinforced as doing security or policing, it shapes your perspectives of the people around you and how you react to them,” he said.

Commendations and complaints

Because of the city’s scant tracking of off-duty work, it is unclear how many jobs Chauvin juggled during his time as a Minneapolis police officer.

In fact, many details about his life remain a mystery eight months after Floyd’s death. His family has declined to speak publicly about him. No friends, colleagues or associates have come forward to defend him — and most declined to be named speaking about him.

Chauvin grew up in the mostly White suburbs of St. Paul and lived there until his arrest in May. Because of death threats, he has been allowed to live at an undisclosed location outside Minnesota since he made bail.

Chauvin’s parents divorced when he was in elementary school, and a relative said he spent most of his childhood shuttling between his father — a certified public accountant — and his stay-at-home mother, both of whom remarried. Chauvin has a sister, who is six years younger.

After graduating from high school in 1994, he worked as a prep cook at McDonald’s and at two other area restaurants, according to heavily redacted personnel records from the Minneapolis Police Department. He received a diploma in food preparation from a local technical college, where he took courses like “Stocks, Sauces and Soups” and “Table Service,” the records noted.

In the fall of 1995, Chauvin began studying law enforcement at a local community college.

The next year, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served two stints as a military police officer, including in Hohenfels, Germany, where he was stationed from September 1999 to May 2000. The following year, he applied and was hired as a community service officer in Minneapolis, the first step to joining the force. He came on full time in October 2001, serving stints at precincts across the city before he was permanently assigned to the 3rd Precinct in 2004.

Personnel records show 17 complaints filed against Chauvin during his tenure on the Minneapolis police department — 16 of which were closed without discipline. But personnel files also show that Chauvin was commended for his bravery.

In November 2008, he received a medal of commendation for intervening in an altercation between several gang members a block from El Nuevo Rodeo during an off-duty shift. A sergeant’s note included in Chauvin’s personnel file said he single-handedly disarmed one of the suspects who had opened fire.

“The above incident unfolded so rapidly that Officer Chauvin was unable to call for backup until after the armed male surrendered. Yet Officer Chauvin did not hesitate to place himself in harm’s way,” the sergeant wrote, praising Chauvin’s “obvious self-sacrifice in the face of personal danger.”

He also was awarded medals of valor in two shooting incidents. In 2006, he opened fire with other officers in the killing of 42-year-old Wayne Reyes, a stabbing suspect who they said pointed a shotgun at them. The Reyes family has long questioned the police narrative around the man’s death. A relative is listed as a possible witness for the state in the upcoming trial, indicating prosecutors could cite the incident in their case against Chauvin.

In 2008, during a domestic violence call, Chauvin broke down a bathroom door and shot a suspect, who he alleged had attempted to grab his gun.

Those who know Chauvin recall him as a quiet but rigid patrol cop who rarely engaged with his colleagues. He often rode in silence while on patrol with other officers and divulged little about his personal life.

His wife, Kellie Chauvin, filed to end their marriage of 10 years on the same day her husband was arrested in Floyd’s death. Chauvin initially sought to give his wife most of their assets — fueling speculation that the couple was trying to shield their finances from litigation related to Floyd’s killing. After expressing concerns about potential fraud and ordering a fairer division of their assets and liabilities, the judge overseeing the case granted the couple’s divorce in January, though information about their finances was placed under seal.

Some financial information has emerged from a felony tax evasion case accusing the couple of underreporting at least $464,000 in joint income between 2014 and 2019. Of that total, more than $100,000 was from Chauvin’s off-duty police work — an estimate that prosecutors based on financial documents and “handwritten work schedules” found abandoned in Chauvin’s former home.

Chauvin and his wife have been charged separately and have not yet filed formal pleas.

Those familiar with his work history believe the officer worked at El Nuevo Rodeo and EME Antro Bar until at least March 2020, when the venues were shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic. Both were later destroyed in the civil unrest after Floyd’s death.

At El Nuevo Rodeo, he took on unofficial management duties, doling out shifts to other off-duty police officers and requesting to be paid more for his efforts, said Santamaria, who sold the club in early 2020, well before Floyd’s death. The club caters to Latino customers, but when the venue added “urban nights” targeting mostly Black clientele during the week, Chauvin’s tendency to resort to methods Santamaria felt were unnecessary became especially noticeable, she said. She said Chauvin was visibly anxious and quick to use pepper spray and call for officer backup on minor issues.

In a strange coincidence, Floyd also occasionally worked security at El Nuevo Rodeo during urban nights. The men may have met in passing, Santamaria said, but she doubts there was extended contact. Floyd worked inside the venue and Chauvin outside.

Santamaria — who is listed in court filings as a possible witness by both prosecutors and Chauvin’s defense — does not believe Chauvin would have knelt on Floyd’s neck, ignoring the man’s cries for help, had he recognized him from the club.

But like many who knew Chauvin, she realizes now that she had no idea what was going on in his mind. She probably never really knew him at all.

“It’s beyond my comprehension,” she said. “But he did what he did.”