Was a Saint Paul Police Officer Caught Vandalizing Property at a George Floyd Protest?

Amid the social unrest permeating the Minnesota Twin Cities area following the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd in May 2020, Twitter users claimed to have identified a man spotted vandalizing a local auto parts store as a local police officer — an allegation authorities have denied.

Various photos and videos drew attention to a man wearing a gas mask and a hooded jacket and carrying an umbrella as he busted up the windows of an AutoZone in Minneapolis during a protest. The footage shows the man walking away from demonstrators, telling one person “I will fight you right now” and attempting to take another person’s camera away before leaving the scene. He is also believed to have spraypainted “Free shit for everyone” on a wall.

Let’s go on a journey…

Where everyone who thought this guy who began destroying Autozone windows while a protester tried to stop him, was a coppic.twitter.com/hOcOn2YLkt

— Ronni is Socially Distant ???????? (@LovesTheBern) May 29, 2020

Another video, however, shows the man in the gas mask walking with the unidentified man he was seen threatening to fight:

Spread this video too. Seems they both were… pic.twitter.com/kOUu4c0Hgt

— Mark (@ajobber) May 29, 2020

Suspicions around the man increased when other users circulated photographs of what they said were messages revealing him to be a member of the Saint Paul Police Department. The photos purportedly showed the man’s ex-wife recognizing the photograph of him and saying that he was wearing her mask.

The department released a statement on its own account denying the allegation:

We are aware of the social media post that erroneously identifies one of our officers as the person caught on video breaking windows in Minneapolis. We want to be perfectly clear about this: The person in the video is not our officer. Our officer has been working hard, serving his community, keeping people and property safe, and protecting the right to peacefully assemble. It’s unfortunate that people would post and share this untrue information, adding more confusion to an already painful time in our community.

We contacted the department asking if it had more information it could release to corroborate its claim, but we have yet to hear back.

The local Star-Tribune reported on July 28, 2020 that according to police, a 32-year-old man described as a white supremacist and member of the Hell’s Angels biker gang was suspected of breaking the store windows in an attempt to incite a riot at the protest. Police also linked the unidentified man to a separate incident a month earlier in the nearby town of Stillwater, when a group of men wearing leather jackets identifying them as members of gangs like the Hells Angels and the Aryan Cowboy Brotherhood surrounded and harassed 24-year-old Sophia Rashid and her 4-year-old daughter.

Saint Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell has publicly condemned the aggression on the part of the four Minneapolis police officers — Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao — leading up to George Floyd’s death on May 25 2020. Floyd was allegedly stopped on suspicion of trying to pass a fake $20 bill at a convenience store.

“We’re here to protect people. We’re here to serve people,” Axtell told CNN in an interview aired on May 28 2020. “We are here to be the guardians of our community, not to choke people.”

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that Axtell also sent an email to his officers telling them to watch the footage of Chauvin putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, despite Floyd being handcuffed and telling Chauvin that he could not breathe and ask themselves if they would have responded differently.

“If the answer is no, I want you to reconsider your career choice,” the email reportedly read.

While both Floyd’s family and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey immediately called for Chauvin to be arrested, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said on May 28 2020 that his office would investigate Floyd’s death “as expeditiously, as thoroughly and completely as justice demands,” and called for patience from the public.

However, he added, “there is other evidence that does not support a criminal charge. We need to weigh through all of that evidence to come through with a meaningful determination, and we are doing the best of our ability.”

His office released a follow-up statement:

County Attorney Freeman was saying that it is critical to review all the evidence because at the time of trial, invariably, all that information will be used.

Evidence not favorable to our case needs to be carefully examined to understand the full picture of what actually happened.

This happens in every case. This statement does not indicate in any way the horror that we all feel when viewing the video. As in any case, it is simply a matter of adequately preparing for trial.

A day after Freeman’s statement, state Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington announced that Chauvin had been arrested. Shortly after that announcement, Freeman confirmed that Chauvin had been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

Floyd’s death has been the impetus for a string of demonstrations in not only Minnesota and Saint Paul, but other cities around the United States. According to the Pioneer Press, local police said that more than 170 businesses have been “looted and damaged” in the course of the protests. We have asked law enforcement for more information and details around that figure.

Update May 29, 2020 10:56 am PST: Updated with a note on a second video showing the man in the gas mask.
Update May 29, 2020 11:24 am PST: Updated to reflect the arrest of Derek Chauvin on May 29 2020.
Update July 28, 2020 10:46 am PST: Updated to reflect police allegation that a member of the Hell’s Angels biker gang was responsible for vandalizing the store.