MPD accused of hiding police misconduct evidence

MSR file photo Jaleel Stallings

Bodycam footage showing officers’ assault withheld over a year

Jaleel Stallings, a Black St. Paul man charged with second-degree murder after he unknowingly fired at Minneapolis police officers during a night of protests last year, was recently acquitted of all eight charges stemming from the incident, following a July trial.

Stallings, a 29-year-old Army veteran who claimed he fired at the unmarked vehicle in self-defense on May 30, 2020, can breathe easier after his acquittal by the Hennepin County jury. However, the case raises serious questions about the efficacy of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Officers’ intentions

Five days after the death of George Floyd and amid escalating unrest in the city, Minneapolis police officers took to the streets with orders from their superior, Sgt. Andrew Bittell. Before the unmarked cargo van turned down the street where Stallings and other demonstrators were gathered after curfew, Bittell instructed the officers to “drive down Lake Street. You see a group, call it out. OK, great! F*** ’em up, gas ’em, f*** ’em up.” Speaking to his SWAT unit, Bittell added, “The first f***ers we see, we’re just hammering ’em with 40s.”

When the unit fired a hail of rubber bullets from the unmarked vehicle toward Stallings and other demonstrators standing in a parking lot, Stallings was struck in the chest. Fearing he was bleeding out and that those firing what he thought were real bullets might be White Supremacist aggressors with bad intentions, Stallings returned fire. Gov. Tim Walz’s warning that White Supremacists were in the area looking for trouble rang in the back of his mind.

Stallings testified during the trial that he only realized he had been firing at police officers when the SWAT team jumped out of the vehicle. He dropped his weapon and laid on the pavement.

Body camera footage published by the Minnesota Reformer in early September shows members of the SWAT team jumping out of the vehicle and running toward Stallings, who was on the ground. Officers Justin Stetson and Bittell kicked and hit Stallings in the head and body repeatedly until Bittell instructed, “That’s it, stop it.” But Stetson didn’t stop hitting Stallings until Bittell physically intervened, saying, “Stop, stop. It’s OK,” grabbing Stetson’s hand. 

Stallings was arrested and 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. His mugshot shows evidence of the injuries he sustained from being hit by the officers.

Evidence withheld

Although prosecutors are required to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense under the Brady rule, Stallings’ attorney Eric Rice told the Minnesota Reformer that when he requested Brady material, including disciplinary records from the five officers involved in the case, he was told there were none. However, records show that two of the five had been disciplined before. Stetson had been admonished for failing to report his use of force in a case of a group of Black men accused of selling drugs.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, an estimated 50% of wrongful convictions occur because of official misconduct, including Brady violations. Violations persist in part because prosecutors are shielded by qualified immunity, which makes meeting the standard to demonstrate a constitutional right has been violated extremely difficult.

Prosecutors may also avoid admitting misconduct by negotiating deals, while courts and state bar associations don’t typically impose discipline for misconduct.

In a press release following the encounter, police were quick to establish a particular narrative about the events that had taken place, one that asserted that Stallings “did not comply and resisted” as officers approached, and that neither he nor the officers involved were injured. Stallings would later testify that physicians suspected his eye socket was fractured during the beating. Court documents say Stallings also exhibited labored breathing after his arrest from the impact of the rubber bullets striking his chest.

The press release claimed a review of body camera footage of the encounter “corroborates” officers’ statements about the incident. But for more than a year, in the absence of access to the footage, members of the public had to either take the police’s word at face value or speculate, as objective evidence of what occurred remained concealed until the footage was made public this month.

Footage shows Stallings lying flat on the ground as officers approached and began to beat him.

The MPD has faced regular scrutiny for a lack of transparency. ACLU-MN sued the MPD in June, alleging the department is illegally withholding police misconduct records.

“There is a disconnect between official statements of transparency and accountability and MPD policies that intentionally hide public data. The City and MPD are ignoring the intent and letter of the law to deliberately hide bad police behavior,” Minnesota Coalition on Government Information Board Member Paul Ostrow said in a statement. “Public information is a civil right. Police reform cannot succeed when officer misconduct is hidden from the public.”

MPD chief excuses misconduct

Following the jury’s decision to acquit Stallings, MPD Police Chief Medaria Arradondo pointed towards the “context” of officers’ encounter with Stallings amid a night of protests. “I’m aware of the recent decision by the honorable Judge Koch who as a part of his decision noted context is important, and that the officers had just been through four days of rioting, looting, arson, and the burning of the Third Precinct,” Arradondo told KARE11’s Lou Raguse.

Although authorities haven’t indicated that Stallings and other protesters gathered in the parking lot were involved in rioting and looting, Arradondo offered a justification for the firing of the rubber bullets based on the potential for peaceful protesters to escalate. “Peaceful protests sometimes quickly escalated to violence. We respect the judicial process as well as the internal investigatory process which is currently active. It is for that reason I will not be commenting further at this time,” he said.

Meanwhile, more than a year after the encounter, Minneapolis police spokesperson John Elder told The Associated Press he could not confirm or release any information about possible disciplinary action against the officers involved because the situation is under internal review. 

The continued controversy surrounding the conduct of the MPD comes as Minnesota’s highest court has allowed a ballot question placing the future of policing in Minneapolis in the hands of voters.