June 25, 2021
This is the translation of an article originally published in the German national daily WELT on June 25, the day of Derek Chauvin’s sentencing in Minneapolis.
In May 2020, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, setting in motion a wave of protests across the U.S. and the world. But even after his high-profile trial and conviction, the now-former policeman remains an enigma. Our reporter set out to search for clues in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul.
By Katja Ridderbusch
The answer to the question of who was Derek Chauvin before he became America’s most notorious police officer is almost always the same. One could hardly remember him.
The world got to know Chauvin through a smartphone video taken by a teenage bystander. It showed a white cop in a light blue Minneapolis police uniform shirt pressing his knee into the neck of a Black man – George Floyd – until he suffocated and died. The officer’s action unleashed a wave of protests against systemic racism across the country last summer, on par with the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Since then, one still shot from the viral video has become an icon of cruelty, a symbol of police brutality. It’s the moment when Chauvin briefly raises his head with an expression that’s somewhere between detached and indifferent; defensive and defiant; also strained, but mostly blank, and in the end, impossible to decipher.
On April 20, after a three-week trial broadcasted live across the globe, a Minneapolis jury found Chauvin guilty of second-and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. This Friday, Chauvin will be sentenced in the same place where he was tried, the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis.
The prosecution has requested a 30-year prison sentence – more than twice the 12½ years recommended by Minnesota guidelines. Chauvin’s defense has asked for probation and time served. Judge Peter Cahill already acknowledged the aggravating factors in Chauvin’s case, which suggests a longer prison time.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the judge goes up to 25 years,” said Richard Frase, a professor of criminal law at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Since George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, family, friends, and colleagues of Derek Chauvin have taken cover. A seat in courtroom 1856, reserved for a person close to the defendant, remained vacant throughout most of the trial. Only a few people who’ve known Chauvin spoke publicly about him, and many who did wish to stay anonymous.
The story of Derek Chauvin is one with many gaps and voids. It largely takes place in a few square miles of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota’s twin cities in the midwestern United States.
The story begins in the modest, predominantly white suburb of West St. Paul, where Derek Michael Chauvin was born in March 1976. His mother was a homemaker, his father a certified public accountant. His parents divorced when he was eight. They shared custody of Derek, who moved back and forth between his parents and a grandmother.
In interviews with several U.S. news media, former classmates at Park High School in Cottage Grove remembered Chauvin as a skinny boy with dark hair who was often alone. “He was just a face in the crowd,” one recalled. Another classmate said Chauvin was teased by the popular boys because he was “different,” didn’t talk much and wasn’t into sports. Sometimes, the girls invited him to sit with them for lunch. “He was gentle and not aggressive in any way,” one former peer said, even when the other kids ignored him.
After high school, Chauvin started working as a prep cook at Tinucci’s, a buffet restaurant not far from where he grew up. He earned a diploma in quantity food preparation at a local college and later worked as a line cook at McDonald’s.
It took him a while to figure out what he wanted to do, but he eventually became interested in a career in law enforcement. He worked at a security firm, started studying criminal justice and later earned a bachelor’s degree. He signed up for the U.S. Army Reserves, where he served in the military police. Between September 1999 and April 2000, he was deployed at a U.S. Army training facility in Hohenfels in Bavaria, Germany.
Jerry Obieglo was his platoon leader at the time. He remembered U.S. Army Specialist Chauvin as a thin and quiet young man who always showed up on time, kept his uniform clean and his equipment in order. “He was very professional. I never had any trouble with him,” Obieglo told WELT.
Chauvin spent his free time studying for the Minnesota police exam. “His mind was set on one thing, and that was to be a civilian police officer someday,” Obieglo said. “That was his goal. And he was very focused on it.”
Chauvin didn’t drink and didn't socialize much but would often volunteer to be the designated driver when his comrades wanted to go to town and have a few drinks. “He was helpful, accommodating,” Obieglo said.
He also remembered that when on duty, Chauvin always gave very detailed reports of his encounters as an MP. But he wasn’t overly eager, said his former platoon sergeant, who also worked in law enforcement and is now retired. “Some of the guys were real go-getters. They were writing lots and lots of speeding tickets,” he added. “Not Derek.”
Back in the U.S., Chauvin asked Obieglo to be a reference on his Minneapolis Police Department application. Obieglo readily agreed. He saw Chauvin again 20 years later – in the bystander and police body cam videos that captured the killing of Floyd. At first, he didn’t recognize his face. It was his walk that triggered the memory. Very straight, upright, and markedly slow. “I suddenly knew that was him,” he said. “That was Derek Chauvin.”
A few months after he returned from Germany, Chauvin passed his Minnesota police exam. In October 2001, at the age of 25, he joined the Minneapolis Police Department. He had finally arrived.
Being a police officer was more than a job for Derek Chauvin. It was how he saw himself. According to the patchwork of observations and comments from former colleagues, there was something deeply earnest about the way he did his work. Something serious, determined, uncompromising.
There were also lighter moments, especially in his personal life. In 2010, Chauvin married Kellie Xiong, a radiology technician, real estate agent and photographer. Her family, Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia, had come to the U.S. in the late 1970s.
The Chauvins bought a four-bedroom house with two garages in a brand-new St. Paul neighborhood, large enough for a family with kids. They later purchased a townhome near Orlando, Florida. But then it seemed like plans changed. The couple sold their first home and moved to Oakdale, a quiet middle-class suburb in St. Paul with hardwood trees, running paths and a neighborhood park.
They lived in a nondescript gray house on a street corner, with a wide garage door and narrow entrance, surrounded by a lawn but no flowers. A few days after Floyd’s death, protesters gathered in front of the house and wrote on the driveway in red and white paint: “Murderer” and “Fuck Killer Cops.”
Today, the house has been sold, and the paint on the driveway has almost washed away. Neighbors say they were relieved that the protesters and reporters are finally gone.
Mike lives next door to the former Chauvin house. He often tried to strike up a conversation with his quiet neighbor, who came and went at odd times, but he was rarely successful. “If you got a ‘hi’ out of him that was a lot,” he said to WELT, shrugging his shoulders. “He was very standoffish.” But his wife was always friendly, he continued, “she was a real sweetheart.”
Mike last saw Chauvin in his driveway putting new chrome wheels on his car, a dark BMW X5. It was probably just a few days before the incident, “and it was warm outside, like today,” he remembered. “It’s a sad story,” Mike added after a pause, “for Floyd and his family, for the city and the country, and, yes, also for Chauvin.”
Kellie Chauvin filed for divorce shortly after her husband was arrested and indicted for murder. Chauvin agreed to all terms, and the divorce was finalized in January.
The world where Derek Chauvin worked as a cop is about 20 miles west of the St. Paul suburbs, but it couldn’t be more different. For 16 of his 19 years with the Minneapolis police, Chauvin was assigned to the Third Precinct, which covers a rough pocket of South Minneapolis. Tensions run high there. Crime is rampant, and the relationship between the community and police has been strained for a long time.
Here, Chauvin worked patrol until the end. He was often on the grueling night shift, from four in the afternoon until two in the morning. That’s what he wanted, even though many cops his age had switched to less exhausting day shifts or convenient desk jobs. Like many U.S. police officers, Chauvin supplemented his income by working off-duty gigs as a security guard in nightclubs, restaurants, and retail markets – all in the Third Precinct.
Fellow cops and supervisors describe him as a hard and disciplined worker. Tight-lipped, restless, sometimes a bit cocky. The officer with the badge number 1087 was commended for bravery and received several medals for valor, according to his personnel file published by the Minneapolis Police Department after he was indicted.
One citizen wrote to the chief of police that Chauvin acted in a “respectful, professional and sensitive manner” when responding to a domestic violence call. Other letters described his policing style as “thoughtful” and “courteous”. But there were also complaints that stated the opposite – that he overreacted or used a demeaning tone.
He rarely met with other officers outside of the job. He was not particularly liked or unliked, said one of his colleagues, who occasionally worked patrol with Chauvin. He spoke to WELT on the condition that he not be identified. “Most of us didn’t really know him and didn’t know what to make of him,” he said.
Chauvin didn’t talk much when they patrolled together and certainly not about his personal life, his former colleague continued. They often drove for hours in silence. But he also remembered that Chauvin could be thin-skinned at times and quick to get aggressive, “especially when people got too close to him, physically.”
During the nine minutes and 29 seconds that Chauvin sat on Floyd’s neck, he lost his eerie countenance only once – when a bystander moved towards him. “Don’t come over here. Don’t come over here,” he shouted as he pulled the pepper spray from his duty belt.
Today, the Third Precinct is destroyed. Protesters sieged the building for several days after Floyd’s death before finally burning it down. A year later, clean up around the ruins seem to have stalled. Weeds are breaking through the asphalt in the former parking lot. On the concrete barriers in front of the buildings, someone had sprayed “George Floyd is alive” and “All Cops Are Chauvin,” a take on the rallying cry “All Cops are Bastards.”
The building that housed “El Nuevo Rodeo,” a Latin restaurant and club, where Chauvin worked security for many years, also burned to the ground and has been demolished. A year after the riots, the city is deeply scarred by the traces of Chauvin’s crime – a strange contrast to his nondescript life.
What Chauvin did was terrible, “but he’s not the devil that he’s made out to be,” Joel Sandberg, a retired police sergeant, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Sandberg, who worked in the Third Precinct, is one of the few who called Chauvin a friend. “I don’t know what happened to him,” he said. “Nobody knows. That’s the million-dollar question.”
There is a lot of speculation and some vague clues. Working as a patrol officer for 19 years in a high-crime area is a long time, said John Violanti, a professor of psychology at Buffalo State University, to WELT. Violanti is a leading expert on police burnout.
He said that prolonged trauma, stress, and shift work can leave a mark on officers’ physical and mental health, ranging from cardiovascular issues to PTSD. In a motion before the sentencing, Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson stated that his client had been “preliminary diagnosed with heart damage”.
According to Violanti, many veteran cops tend to experience a severe form of burnout called depersonalization. They “become jaded to emotions and lose their ability to feel empathy, to feel anything,” he said. As a result, these cops “often treat other people as objects instead of humans.”
He doesn’t know Chauvin personally, the researcher emphasized. “But it's certainly possible that he was a heavily burned-out police officer.”
And then there are the issues of race, racism and social injustice which are deeply engrained in U.S. society. The death of George Floyd was just one of the most recent and most visible cases in a distinct line of violent police encounters with African Americans. Also, the Minneapolis Police force – and especially the Third Precinct – has a long reputation for being particularly aggressive towards ethnic minorities.
While the court did not find Chauvin’s actions to be racially motivated, the public killing of Floyd caused racial and societal tensions to explode. Chauvin is the first white police officer in Minnesota to be indicted and convicted for the death of an African American.
So far, Chauvin has not commented on his crime, his perspective, or his motivation. He has not shown remorse, nor expressed regret, at least not publicly. He chose not to testify during his trial. He listened to the witness testimonies, later to the arguments by the prosecution and defense. Occasionally, he wrote on a notepad. He took the verdict – guilty on all three counts – with the same posture that he upheld during the entire trial, attentive and very matter-of-factly. He briefly nodded at his attorney as the sheriff’s deputies handcuffed him and led him out of the courtroom.
Meanwhile, in downtown Minneapolis, TV crews and security personnel prepare for the moment when on early Friday afternoon, Judge Cahill will announce the sentencing. It won’t be the last time that a court decides the fate of the former policeman. Chauvin and his three ex-colleagues face federal charges for violating Floyd’s civil rights. The state trial against the three cops for aiding and abetting the murder of George Floyd is set to begin next spring.
In addition, Chauvin has been indicted by the U.S. Justice Department for an incident in 2017 when he responded to a domestic violence call. He allegedly hit a 14-year-old boy with his flashlight and used a choke hold on him. Chauvin and his ex-wife also face charges for tax evasion in a separate court case.
Criminal law professor Frase said it’s likely that Chauvin will be locked away for a very long time, probably at the place where he’s incarcerated now, the maximum-security prison Oak Park Heights, east of Minneapolis. The modern, 160-acre concrete site is surrounded by a double set of steel fences topped with razor wire and nestled between rolling green hills, idyllic in a most surreal way.
Frase also expects Chauvin to remain in solitary confinement for the time being – mostly to protect him from assaults by other inmates. “It would be very embarrassing for the state to allow Chauvin to be murdered in prison,” he said.
Oak Park Heights sits only a few miles from the places where Derek Chauvin used to live and work – his old high school, the house that he shared with his ex-wife, and the Third Precinct. Only a few miles from his former life. A life in which few people can remember him.
Editor’s Note: On June 25, 2021, Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison. At the court hearing he gave a brief statement. “I do want to give my condolences to the Floyd family,” Chauvin said. “There’s going to be some other information in the future," he added, “and I hope things will give you some peace of mind.” Legal experts later suggested Chauvin was referring to a possible plea deal in his upcoming federal case.
© Katja Ridderbusch