Questions remain unanswered one year after Winston Smith’s death

Courtesy of Facebook/Winston Smith Winston Smith

Winston Smith died one year ago today in his car on an Uptown parking ramp. The fatal bullets were fired by a deputy from Hennepin County and a deputy for Ramsey County, part of a U.S. Marshals task force seeking to arrest Smith on a warrant for missing a court sentencing.

Since that time, there has been sketchy and sometimes contradictory information about the circumstances of his death.

Early reports were that the task force was initially seeking to arrest a completely different person but got a tip that Winston Smith was in the area for a dinner date. Early speculation questioned why Smith had not been arrested before reaching the parked car he had borrowed. Local press reported that Smith had reached for a gun, although his date said she never saw a gun, only a black cellphone.

Winston Smith is still dead.

Smith was shot through the window of the car, killing him and injuring his date with flying glass. Smith’s date was quoted as saying that the car was boxed in by officers’ vehicles, but it was never clear how officers were able to get both behind and beside Smith’s car while it was boxed in, according to reports.

Winston Smith is still dead.

Officers were quoted as saying that a weapon was recovered in the car and even spent bullets found near his body. It was stated that Smith had also fired, although it was never asserted who fired first. Remarkably, Smith’s body was never checked for gunpowder residue to determine if he actually fired. 

The weapon said to be found in his possession was previously reported stolen in Iowa, but no information was released about how it might have come into Smith’s possession or even what other fingerprints were found on the gun.

Winston Smith is still dead.

Much is not publicly known about this incident because no body cams or vehicle cams recorded it. According to local authorities, the U.S. Marshals prohibited the use of body cams in their operations and task forces. 

Several days later, a spokesperson for the Marshals maintained that their no-cam policy had recently been reversed. Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher described that statement as “misleading.”  

In any case, the perceived no-body-cam policy was given for a lack of participation by the Minneapolis police in that operation and the reason that Ramsey County deputies were suspended from future work on similar task forces.

Winston Smith is still dead.

The names of the two deputies who fired the fatal shots were never made public. Instead, a statement was made that they were working undercover at that time and that state law mandated they remain anonymous. It was never clear if those deputies were designated undercover prior to this operation, made undercover precisely for this action, or even made undercover after the Smith shooting occurred. 

Winston Smith is still dead.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and a number of other recent controversial police killings, the Twin Cities has been experiencing evident public mistrust of our police. 

In order to regain public trust, a separate and independent section of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was formed, tasked with a thorough and transparent investigation whenever police used lethal force. Their mandate was to do the exclusive investigation in all aspects, taking testimony from all witnesses, gathering and analyzing all physical evidence. 

This Force Investigation Unit (FIU) would produce a report but not make charging recommendations. The decision to charge an officer or not with anything from murder to negligence would usually be made by a county attorney with no conflict of interest in the case.  With Smith’s death, the 1,025-page report was submitted to the Crow Wing County Attorney, who made the decision not to charge last October, over four months after Smith’s homicide.

According to the B.C.A. website, the report is then released to the public. The website states: “Most information becomes public when the case is closed. This happens when all court proceedings have finished or if the prosecutor decides against pressing charges.” 

Information legally confidential would be redacted before a public release. A county attorney decision not to charge was announced last October. The FIU report is still not available to the public, over five months later.

Winston Smith is still dead.

The looming question remains if this particular death was unavoidable, perhaps even necessary to avoid further death or imminent danger. Most people would not posit that Winston Smith “deserved” to die.  

From what we can know, he was certainly no saint, with a public record of arrests and court appearances. But none of us want to designate our officers as judge, jury and executioners. What we need to know is rather whether deaths at the hands of the police are justified. 

Providing public transparency and obvious objectivity in the ensuing investigation is precisely why the Force Investigation Unit was established. Creating procedures to avoid conflict of interest and allowing the public access to reliable information would make it possible for us to regain trust in our armed officers. 

Winston Smith is still dead.

That report has still not been released.

I do not wish to accuse anyone. I believe I share a fervent wish for regained trust that, while a death might be tragic, it might also be unavoidable. 

Lacking transparency since this case was resolved in October, I have written to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the Crow Wing County Attorney, the Public Safety Commissioner, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Governor Tim Walz, as well as communicating well over a dozen times with official contacts at the FIU and over a dozen Star Tribune reporters and columnists who have written about the death of Winston Smith. 

Winston Smith is still dead.

The report is still not public.

Charles Underwood is a Minneapolis resident.