Before the white, unmarked cargo van of the Minneapolis Police Department drove down Lake Street, an officer gave Sgt. Andrew Bittell his orders: “Drive down Lake Street. You see a group, call it out. OK great! F*** ’em up, gas ’em, f*** ’em up.”
Bittell turned to his SWAT unit in the van and said, “Alright, we’re rolling down Lake Street. The first f***ers we see, we’re just hammering ’em with 40s,” according to body camera footage described in court documents. He was referring to “less lethal” plastic projectiles sometimes called rubber bullets or 40mm launchers or rounds.
It was nighttime, just five days after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. Protests and riots had raged for days and laid waste to businesses along Lake Street and the Third Precinct police station. By May 30, protests had ebbed but a curfew was in effect.
At 17th Avenue and Lake Street, around 10 p.m., the SWAT team saw a group of people outside the Stop-N-Shop gas station. Bittell told the driver to head toward the station and said, “Let ’em have it boys!”
“Right there, get ’em, get ’em, get ’em, hit ’em, hit ’em!” he ordered as the officers fired their plastic bullet launchers without warning. They later learned they were shooting at the gas station owner, neighbors and relatives guarding the station from more looting, as well as bystanders, including a Vice News reporter who had his hands up and was yelling, “Press!”
About an hour later, three blocks to the west, they opened the sliding door of the van and began firing plastic rounds at people in a parking lot.
They hit Jaleel K. Stallings, 29, a St. Paul truck driver, who says he didn’t know they were cops because they were inside an unmarked white cargo van with the police lights off. He thought they were real bullets. And, he says he was mindful of warnings earlier that day from no less than Gov. Tim Walz that white supremacists were roaming the city looking for trouble.
Stallings, an Army veteran, returned fire with his mini Draco pistol, for which he had a permit. He aimed low, toward the front of the van, and didn’t hit anyone. When the SWAT team jumped out of the van yelling, “Shots fired!” Stallings realized they were police. So he dropped his weapon and lay face down on the pavement, according to court documents.
His eye socket was fractured in the beating that followed, with officers later claiming he resisted arrest.
A Hennepin County jury recently acquitted Stallings of all charges after he was allowed by a judge to claim self-defense.
Court documents and transcripts reveal a far different story than the one officers told investigators, as well as the tales police and prosecutors offered up to the media. The documents and other court records also reveal what until now has remained largely obscure: How was the Minneapolis Police Department reacting to the protests, civil unrest, looting and rioting in the days after Floyd’s murder?
The answer: Fiercely — and at times indiscriminately.
In a pre-trial order, Hennepin County District Judge William Koch (who did not preside over the trial) was critical, if judiciously so, of MPD leadership:
“While the court recognizes there can be appropriate bravado to support colleagues ‘going into battle’ or to address concerns about personal safety, it is not too much to expect those in leadership positions to know the proper way to motivate and support their officers without inciting them to inappropriate behavior toward the public they serve,” he wrote in a February order. “How a superior expresses himself can help cool heads, or heat them up.”
MPD spokesman John Elder referred all questions to the city attorney’s office, which did not return a call seeking comment.
As Minneapolis voters consider a November ballot initiative that would create a new public safety agency, they are sure to examine the actions of officers like the ones who shot Stallings with plastic rounds and beat him up, as well as the frayed relationship between the department and the people it purports to protect and serve.
The police version
Here’s what police and prosecutors said happened in a press release: SWAT officers were patrolling Lake Street in an unmarked white van to “control the crowds that were causing severe property damage” when they came upon a group near 14th Avenue.
While several people dispersed, Stallings stepped out from behind a pickup, walked toward the officers and crouched by the driver’s side door as if to pick up something.
The officers, concerned that he was planning to throw debris or rocks at them, fired a 40-mm marking round at Stallings, who fired “three to four shots in the direction of the officers, narrowly missing them,” according to the criminal complaint. (The complaint said officers “deployed one 40-mm round at Stallings” even though officers fired two rounds before Stallings returned fire.)
Stallings “quickly ran away” and was handcuffed “after a struggle,” according to a press release issued by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who said Stallings was charged for “shooting at police officers amidst riots and protests” and “firing multiple shots at SWAT officers during riots.”
“None of the officers, nor Stallings, were injured,” the release said, even though Stallings’ bruised, scraped face on his mugshot clearly indicates otherwise, and he was taken to a hospital after his arrest.
I immediately thought I was being shot at with real bullets and was about to die. I was under the impression that I was bleeding out.
The criminal complaint said that during police questioning, Stallings asked if anyone had been killed, and after being told no, he “said he wanted to speak with a lawyer and the statement was ended.” But Stallings’ lawyer said a recording of the interview shows Stallings twice asked whether the officers were OK — not whether he had killed anyone — saying his main concern was making sure everybody was OK. When an officer said no one had been seriously hurt, the officer noted Stallings appeared relieved. “During the interview, the officer even expressed appreciation for Stallings’ concern for the well-being of the officers involved,” Stallings’ lawyer wrote in a legal memo.
He was charged with two counts of attempted second-degree intentional, non-premeditated murder, two counts of first-degree assault, deadly force against police officers, two counts of second-degree assault, use of a dangerous weapon, one count of second-degree rioting and one count of intentional discharge of a firearm.
The case made headlines, with outlets such as the Washington Post reporting on criminal charges that said the SWAT team was wearing uniforms, SWAT vests and helmets, though not mentioning they were in an unmarked van in the dark, with the lights off.
The case made headlines again a few days later, when the Minnesota Freedom Fund paid $75,000 cash to get Stallings — who had no criminal record — out of jail.
It even became fodder for presidential campaign fundraising, with then-President Donald Trump’s War Room tweeting that “Jaleel Stallings is a would-be cop killer who was in jail for firing at police during ‘peaceful protests.’ Now he’s free thanks in part to Biden campaign officials who donated to pay bail fees” after Biden campaign officials donated to the Freedom Fund.
Bodycam tells another story
Court hearings and court documents describing bodycam footage tell a different story: That night the SWAT team’s white, unmarked cargo van slowly rolled down East Lake Street with 20 to 30 police cars trailing farther behind.
The van had red and blue lights on the sides, under the mirrors and in the front and rear windows, but they were turned off. The unit wore blue Minneapolis Police Department uniform shirts under black tactical vests.
Street police officers use 40mm launchers with orange barrels so they’re not mistaken for lethal weapons, but the SWAT team had black barrel launchers, making them harder to distinguish from deadly weapons.
At night, without the lights on, it looked like a cargo van creeping down Lake Street with a bunch of cop cars inexplicably trailing behind. In court, one of the SWAT team members likened it to the tip of a spear: They had all the special weapons and tactics, while the cops in the marked cars behind them “barely had riot gear.”
The other units had been told to slow down and stay behind the van. Earlier, Bittell had ordered the squad lights turned off.
Not long after they’d headed out, an officer told Bittell people were headed in the direction of the SWAT unit.
“Let ’em come, let ’em come,” Bittell told his unit.
A couple minutes later, he yelled “Hit ’em! Hit ’em! Hit ’em!” and the officers fired several rounds at the group and then told them, “Get the f*** out of here!” according to descriptions of the bodycam videos in court documents.
Then they saw a group of protesters violating curfew but not looting or rioting. They cleared the people out and were watching a small group shout at them from a distance. They fired some launchers at them, and after the people retreated, Officer Justin Stetson fired another round. The group retreated and stopped yelling. Stetson fired a third time, saying “Gotcha!” Officer Kristopher Dauble laughed and gave him a fist-bump.
When they came upon another small group of people, Bittell told his officers to wait and “draw (them) in.”
“Wait for ’em and draw ’em in; draw ’em in, and then hit ’em,” he told Officer Christopher Cushenbery.
The protestors didn’t draw nearer, however, so the officers didn’t shoot.
As the van proceeded toward 15th Avenue, Stallings and three friends were in a parking lot at 14th Avenue and Lake Street. He’d gone out for his third night of protests after seeing the video of Floyd being pressed into the pavement, dying under the knee of Derek Chauvin.
“It was something that I couldn’t believe — just watching someone kneel on the back of a man’s neck for 9 minutes,” he said in a Reformer interview. “I was extremely upset by it.”
He was wearing a green sweater, basketball shorts and a face mask and drove his big, white Chevrolet Silverado. He had his Mini Draco — a modified pistol that looks like a sawed-off AK-47 — for protection in the face of the disorder and stories about violent white supremacists seeking to sow chaos.
Stallings said he and his companions were in the parking lot trying to figure out what to do when someone came running down the street yelling, “They’re shooting! They’re shooting!”
“I assumed that they meant somebody’s out here trying to kill people,” Stallings recalled.
Stallings’ friend went to the street and immediately turned away, running, so Stallings turned around to take cover near the back of his pickup as the others headed toward vehicles. Stallings turned to get into his pickup as a white van came into view around the corner of the building bordering the parking lot to the west. He couldn’t see anybody inside the van.
The van’s sliding door was open, and the officers immediately began firing. Officer Cushenbery fired first, hitting Stallings’ torso, saying later in a court hearing that he’d been trained to aim at the chest, legs or buttocks.
Stallings said in an interview he heard a pop and then his chest felt like it was on fire, similar to when he was grazed by a bullet once when he was younger and living in Brooklyn.
“I immediately thought I was being shot at with real bullets and was about to die,” he said. “I was under the impression that I was bleeding out.”
Then Stetson fired, hitting Stallings’ pickup door, leaving a dent. Stallings’ military training kicked in, and he fired three rounds at the van while retreating to the rear of his pickup. When he was in the Army, he was taught to shoot “center mass,” but said he aimed low and toward the front of the van to try to scare off whoever was shooting at him.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
“I had enough rounds (that) if I was intending to harm or kill anybody I could have easily done that,” he said. He could’ve fired 31 rounds and hit every person in the van, he said, but fired three.
One of his shots appeared to hit the van — although no bullet was recovered in it — or the street right outside the open door.
“I lifted my feet up because I could see a round skipping off the pavement below the van,” Officer Dauble recounted in court months later.
On bodycam video described in court documents, Dauble appeared to fall backward, then fired a third round toward Stallings’ pickup, hitting the passenger side mirror, cracking the casing, as the van slowed.
The officers yelled “Shots fired! Shots fired!” and jumped out of the van, and Stallings said that’s when he realized they were cops. Court documents describe bodycam footage that show he dropped his gun on the ground and lay face down, with his hands to the side above his head, as though he was surrendering.
He didn’t move for 20 seconds as the officers approached.
“You f***ing piece of shit!” Stetson yelled, and began kicking and punching Stallings in the head and neck, according to court documents.
Stallings didn’t move. He was trying to surrender and de-escalate the situation, he said in an interview.
Bittell began kneeing and punching Stallings in the stomach, chest and back. The beating went on for about 30 seconds — with Bittell and Stetson punching and kicking Stallings in the head, neck, stomach, chest and back.
Midway through the beating, Stetson told Stallings to put his arms behind his back, and after handcuffing him, Bittell sat him up and kicked him in the ribs as Stetson continued hitting him in the head.
Even after his sergeant, Bittell, told Stetson to stop hitting Stallings, he continued. Bittell said, “That’s it; stop it,” but he continued until Bittell grabbed his hand and said, “It’s OK.”
The officers also arrested another person who was with Stallings, repeatedly tasing him.
Stetson beat Stallings so badly he said his hands and feet hurt afterward, and wondered aloud whether he broke his hand, according to court documents.
When paramedics arrived, Stallings had labored breathing and didn’t immediately respond to questions. Stallings was arrested and taken to a hospital and then interrogated and jailed.
Judge Koch noted in an order that while MPD Commander Bruce Folkens was inspecting the crime scene, he told another officer it was “nice to hear” officers were “hunting people” instead of “chasing people around” that evening, and said, “F*** these people.”
After Stallings was arrested, the officers gathered for a debriefing.
“Did anybody shoot?” Sgt. Bittell asked his unit. Nobody said they had. Nobody mentioned that they’d shot Stallings with rubber bullets before he fired back.
“Who are our shooters?” a responding officer asked Bittell, according to court documents.
“Nobody. He shot at us,” replied Bittell, inaccurately. He added: “Then he gave up.”
Bittell repeatedly said Stallings shot at the van, saying Stallings “shot right into the van as (Unit 1281) engaged with 40s.”
The other officers agreed, saying they didn’t “shoot” at Stallings. During a December court hearing, the officers said they meant that they didn’t shoot at him with live ammunition from a lethal weapon.
About nine minutes after the shooting, the unit was ordered to turn off its body cameras.
When one officer suggested the unit be separated and placed with escorts in accordance with MPD’s critical incident policy, Bittell said that was unnecessary because his officers didn’t shoot.
Asked in court what was said after the bodycams were turned off, Officer Dauble said, “It was us sitting back and thankful that we were all alive, that we weren’t killed.”
Dauble said higher-ranking officers discussed whether it was a “critical incident” — such as when an officer fires a weapon — which would have triggered a protocol in which officers are separated, questioned individually and put on administrative leave.
“So this thing got messy. They didn’t know if they were going to call it an operation or a critical incident or not,” Cushenbery testified.
The SWAT team was sent home and told to come back in the morning to give statements to investigators, because their superiors still weren’t sure whether they would be put on administrative leave.
‘They did enjoy it’
The next day, the officers gave what Judge Koch later called “somewhat conflicting, but not necessarily inconsistent” statements to investigators.
Since the officers didn’t use their firearms, it was not deemed a critical incident. The officers were then allowed to watch bodycam footage before doing their written reports.
Officers Stetson, Cushenbery and Dauble didn’t mention their sergeant’s orders — given before they rolled down Lake Street — to “hit the first f***ers” they saw.
Sgt. Bittell didn’t mention the order he was given to “f*** up” groups of people.
None of the officers — including Bittell — mentioned his command to “hit” Stallings’ group. Stetson told investigators he shot at Stallings because he was crouching down and appeared poised to throw something at the van.
Cushenbery didn’t mention that they fired less-lethal weapons at Stallings.
Bittell and Stetson later testified their use of force on Stallings was necessary and justified, saying Stallings was resisting arrest, and that they feared he was armed, although neither frisked him before beating him.
I think that the guys were trying to make as much sense of it as they could and sometimes enjoyment and laughter is a coping mechanism so, yes, you’re correct, they did enjoy it.
– Minneapolis police Sgt. Andrew Bittell
Stallings hired defense attorney Eric Rice of St. Paul, who obtained two hours of bodycam videos that he said tell a different story than what officers and prosecutors told the public.
“It’s hard to watch the videos,” he said in an interview. “They are very graphic and visceral. It makes it very clear what the intention of the officers were.”
The videos show the SWAT team tried to conceal its identity, didn’t warn people before firing on them, gave numerous false and misleading accounts of the incident and — when presented with contradictory evidence — changed their stories, Rice said.
“I was personally shocked by the level of callousness and indifference,” he said. “The whole thing reeks of they were joyriding down Lake Street, they were (using) improper force. They had a dual purpose of trying to intimidate and hurt protesters… and they wanted retribution for the people who had spoken against police, and that included journalists.”
He tried to get Koch, the Hennepin County judge, to dismiss the charges on the grounds that Stallings was denied due process, and the police investigation “shocked the conscience” under the Fourteenth Amendment.
In a February order, Koch was critical of MPD leadership that night, but didn’t find the unit’s conduct rose to the level of unnecessary and unjustified infliction of malicious injury that would spur a dismissal. Koch did allow Stallings to argue during trial that he acted in self-defense.
And, he found the officers used excessive force, agreeing with Rice that there was evidence the unit was indiscriminately shooting at peaceful people that night — firing at a retreating group of people about an hour before they shot Stallings.
But Koch said context is important, too: The officers had just been through four days of rioting, looting, arson and the burning of the Third Precinct. Peaceful protests sometimes quickly escalated to violence.
“Citizens would hope, and should expect, Unit 1281 would show more discretion, as well as follow MPD policy, before firing 40mm launchers,” Koch wrote in the order.
The officers testified during a Dec. 21 hearing that they were unable to warn Stallings and others before firing because they were wearing gas masks and were on high alert after being shot at the previous night.
Officer Dauble testified they were “emotionally charged” that night, and shot at people to deter rioting and looting, which they’d seen earlier that night before they headed out on Lake Street. He said he’d been working 10- to 12-hour days for several days and was exhausted.
“So Lake Street, obviously, was on fire. Every other store was either looted or on fire so we were just trying to push people out of the area and disperse crowds from building to calm the city,” Dauble testified. “So it was no lights, no sirens, and just on patrol down Lake Street trying to regain some control of the city.”
Officer Stetson said during questioning in a court hearing that some members of the unit enjoyed shooting civilians at certain moments, but denied shooting at people just for violating curfew, saying, “It was five nights of a complete riot where the city was burning down.” He said the unit was firing on civilians to “gain back control of the city.”
In court, key details emerged that often contradicted what officers told investigators after the incident.
Stetson acknowledged he never told the investigating officers he shot Stallings, or that he called him a “f***ing piece of sh**” and kicked him in the head four times.
“He had just shot at us; we needed to have full control over him before we do any sort of interview,” he testified.
Asked why he continued to beat Stallings even after both his hands were behind his back, Stetson said Stallings wasn’t complying with him.
“Again, emotions were high, I just shot — got shot at. I thought I was going to die.”
Stetson told investigators marked squad cars were on the sides of the van laterally, in addition to a line of squad cars behind them. But he acknowledged under questioning in court that the marked cars were not directly beside the van, but flanking them, in a V formation, so they weren’t visible to Stallings when the van pulled past a building.
He didn’t tell investigators about the unit’s efforts to conceal their identity as police, and falsely described Stallings’ group as looters even though he didn’t see them take anything.
In his written report, Dauble said he immediately thought Stallings’ Chevrolet pickup might be a vehicle described as being involved in incidents in which shots were fired at police precincts.
Asked about discrepancies between his verbal and written reports, Dauble said, “It was a very traumatic event, as I’m sure you could recognize in trying to recollect that the next day without having much sleep was very difficult.”
Bittell acknowledged the unit shot civilians multiple times while going down Lake Street, calling the rounds a “pain compliance” measure.
“This was the fifth night, sir, and the most chaotic scene I’ve ever seen as a police officer in 23 years,” he testified in a pre-trial hearing. “My group had been fired on earlier the previous night so, yes, I — we felt we could at any time be fired upon.”
He also acknowledged his unit enjoyed firing at the civilians.
“I think that the guys were trying to make as much sense of it as they could and sometimes enjoyment and laughter is a coping mechanism so, yes, you’re correct, they did enjoy it,” he testified.
Asked whether they shot at people who weren’t a threat, Bittell said, “Everybody I saw that got shot seemed to either be attempting to loot, probably planning to loot, you know, it was — it was the directive I got was to clear the street so that’s what we did.”
He said he got between Stallings and his rifle and put his foot on Stallings’ back because he was still a threat — his rifle was within reach, and he feared Stallings could pull another handgun and shoot the officers.
During the December hearing, Bittell denied hitting Stallings in the back of the head, saying he only kicked him.
Parking lot surveillance video showed otherwise. When Rice implied Bittell’s memory was muddy, he said, “I was — I was fearing for my life. I, I, I was fired upon by — with a rifle. I was thinking about my children and my wife. Everything was crystal clear and I knew I had to take him into custody.”
In a footnote to his order, Judge Koch noted some of the officers also harbored “concerning beliefs.”
Lt. Johnny Mercil, for instance, expressed frustration with Mayor Jacob Frey’s public statements that violence was being committed by out-of-state white supremacists, saying he wanted to throw the civilians in jail to prove the mayor wrong, telling a member of Unit 1281 that he loves to “scatter” the people breaking curfew. And, he said, it was “time to f***ing put [inaudible] people in jail” just to “prove the mayor wrong about his white supremacists from out of state,” Koch noted.
Mercil implied Black people were responsible for looting and fires — when there’s “not much looting or arson,” it was because the crowd was “predominantly white,” he said. Another officer agreed.
Mercil was in charge of MPD’s use-of-force training and would go on to testify during Chauvin’s murder trial that officers are trained to use the least amount of force needed to meet their objective.
Will anyone be disciplined?
Stallings got his day in court on July 22, in a five-day jury trial presided over by District Judge Tamara Garcia.
The prosecution called the officers to testify, and the defense called only Stallings. He was acquitted of all charges.
Stallings said he wasn’t surprised, just relieved, because it’s hard to have faith in the criminal justice system.
His attorney said the facts strongly supported acquittal, but ran against the police narrative.
“What rights does he have to stand in a parking lot and not get shot at?” Rice said.
Rice said to his knowledge, none of the officers involved have been disciplined — something that would have had to be disclosed to him before the trial. Discipline before the trial would have been unlikely because it would have hurt the prosecution’s case against Stallings.
But several MPD policies were violated, he said.
Under department policy, officers shouldn’t use 40mm rounds to target a person’s head, neck, throat and chest (in the vicinity of the heart) “unless deadly force is justified” because they could cause “permanent physical or mental incapacity or possible death.” Cushenbery said he’d been trained to aim at the chest, legs or buttocks.
MPD policy also directs officers to announce, whenever possible, the use of 40mm launchers so officers “do not mistake the sight and noise” with that of “live ammunition.” And yet Officers Stetson, Dauble and Bittell testified they did not believe the sight and sound of 40mm launchers can be confused with the appearance and sound of lethal firearms.
Cushenbery testified that an untrained person could confuse 40mm launchers with live firearms, and Judge Koch found Cushenbery’s testimony more credible than the other officers, particularly since the 40mm launchers were used at night from a moving vehicle “in an otherwise generally chaotic environment with potentially charged emotions.”
When contacted by phone, the prosecutor, Erin Stephens, said she didn’t have time to talk and would call back, but never did. Instead, Lacey Severins, spokeswoman for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, responded by email.
“Our office cannot always make trial attorneys and County Attorney Freeman available for every media request we receive,” Severins wrote.
Stallings is considering further legal action.
Rice still has a lot of questions, like why the police didn’t investigate whether Stallings fired in self defense. Why officers did not report that they shot Stallings first, even though he had bright green marking paint on his sweater as he lay on the ground after being beaten. Why the medic chalked up Stallings’ labored breathing to “probable narcotics use.”
And, why the officers weren’t investigated or disciplined.
Stetson has been reprimanded before, after responding to a report of young Black men suspected of selling drugs. Stetson gave one of them a small cut on his eye and failed to notify a supervisor about his use of force and the resulting injury, city documents show.
Paul Applebaum, a civil rights lawyer who has filed numerous brutality lawsuits against Minneapolis officers, said it’s “completely inappropriate” for a SWAT team to shoot rubber bullets at someone walking down the street or standing in a parking lot after curfew.
He said that’s excessive force, and even though the rubber bullets are dubbed non-lethal, they can be lethal and “that doesn’t give them carte blanche to fire at people who are not resisting.”
Yes, police were likely frustrated after five days of unrest, he said.
“These are not guys who are used to being surrounded and being trapped in a precinct by a crowd,” Applebaum said. “Some of that’s understandable, but you also have to be professional about it. If you can’t maintain your composure, hand your non-lethal bullet to someone else.”
After the trial, the Reformer attempted to get access to the bodycam videos that were played in open court, to which the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office objected. A hearing was held last week, and Judge Koch gave the prosecutor and city attorney two weeks to file briefs on the issue, with a hearing scheduled on the matter later this month. Rice said the city attorney informed him Tuesday that the city will release the videos, but they must be redacted first to remove the identities of bystanders, per a state law.