As police in riot gear approached demonstrators in Minneapolis last year, Soren Stevenson raised his hands and called out, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
But tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets rained down.
The demonstrators had gathered for a sixth day to protest Minneapolis police officers’ use of force after the killing by a white cop of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.
On May 31, 2020, Stevenson, a University of Minnesota graduate student, lost his left eye after an officer fired a plastic-tipped round at him — though Minneapolis Police Department policy bans using those munitions against nonviolent people.
According to a federal lawsuit that cites video and witness accounts, Stevenson was unarmed, had committed no crime, posed no threat and wasn’t in a chaotic crowd.
It wasn’t an isolated event. Dozens of people were seriously injured during the protests last summer, leading to lawsuits, promises of reform and calls to ban the use of rubber bullets for crowd control.
“This is a moment in time where we can totally change the way our police department operates,” Mayor Jacob Frey said when the Minneapolis City Council banned chokeholds soon after Floyd’s death. “We can quite literally lead the way in our nation enacting more police reform than any other city in the entire country, and we cannot fail.”
Nearly a year later, there’s scant evidence Minneapolis has changed how its police officers use less-lethal weapons or strengthened the city’s oversight.
The Minneapolis Police Department has not given the public or the city council a full accounting of how it responded to last summer’s demonstrations. The department has failed to disclose even basic facts — like the number of protesters arrested or wounded.
No officers have been disciplined for their actions during the protests. The only discipline related to the protests was handed to an officer who described the department’s toxic culture in a GQ story without official authorization.
The Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution last month calling for an end to the use of rubber bullets, tear gas and other less-lethal rounds. It was no more than a “statement of values” with no legal weight.
Police Chief Medaria Arradondo rejected the resolution as “unhelpful and uninformed,” saying that, if officers can’t use less-lethal weapons, they have only guns and batons to combat demonstrators “who are here to strike harm and chaos and destroy our city.”
Floyd was killed May 25, 2020, by a police officer during an arrest that was captured on video and seen worldwide.
In a city raw from complaints of police abuses, outrage exploded into demonstrations. Police responded with riot squads armed with tear gas and rubber bullets — less-lethal firearms that launch 40-millimeter projectiles tipped with hard foam or plastic.
For six days and nights, some peaceful demonstrations escalated into arson, looting and chaos, making it difficult to sort out whether protesters or police triggered violence.
Officers used about 5,200 less-lethal munitions over six days, records provided to USA Today show.
Frey said officers faced conditions in which violent provocateurs mixed with peaceful protesters. “Distinguishing between those two became increasingly difficult,” he said.
At least 57 people were injured so severely by less-lethal projectiles that they required urgent care during protests in Minneapolis from May 26 to June 15, 2020, according to the University of Minnesota’s medical school.
Of those, 23 were hit in the face or head. Ten were blinded or suffered severe eye trauma. Sixteen suffered traumatic brain injuries.
Minneapolis policy defines a less-lethal weapon as one that “does not have a reasonable likelihood of causing or creating a substantial risk of death or great bodily harm.”
The policy says officers may use these against individuals posing a threat but “shall not deploy 40mm launchers for crowd management purposes.” It says shots to the head or neck are potentially deadly and should be avoided.
The University of Minnesota study concluded, “Projectiles are not appropriate for crowd control.” Years ago, other researchers reached a similar conclusion.
Yet the devices have been marketed for crowd control. And, last summer, that’s how police across the country used them.
Frey acknowledged seeing videos of officers shooting nonviolent civilians and journalists — sometimes appearing to target the head. Though such conduct is “unacceptable,” he said, efforts to enforce policies have been thwarted by procedural requirements, union resistance and litigation.
Asked whether any Minneapolis officer has been disciplined for violating use-of-force policies during the protests, Frey said in April “quite a few cases” were under investigation but declined to say how many.
Mychal Vlatkovich, a spokesman for Frey, later said no discipline has been finalized, and officials won’t comment on open investigations.
Terry Hempfling, 39, an artist who was raised by activist parents, said protesting injustice is a patriotic duty. On May 29, 2020, she and her friend Rachel Clark joined a crowd near a police station. Around 11:30 p.m., police ordered protesters to disperse. Hempfling said she and Clark walked away and were unlocking their bikes when tear gas swirled in the darkness. They were trapped between two lines of police.
Hempfling said she was disoriented, eyes and throat stinging, as Clark shouted, “We’re getting hit.”
They climbed a fence to escape but not before Hempfling was shot in the back, breast and leg, leaving an expansive bruise that’s still discolored.
Hempfling and Clark, who was hit by three projectiles, are among hundreds of plaintiffs in an American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota lawsuit that accuses Minneapolis and Minnesota state police of having “a custom or policy authorizing the deployment of crowd-control weapons and/or less-lethal munitions in an unconstitutional manner.”
The ACLU suit says departmental restrictions on the use of rubber bullets aren’t enforced, so officers ignore them. A dozen other lawsuits contain similar accusations.
Stevenson, who’s asking for $55 million in damages plus court-ordered policing reforms, says in his suit that a rubber bullet fired by a Minneapolis officer fractured facial bones, ruptured an eye and caused brain damage. He says that, as blood streamed from the wound, at least a half dozen officers allegedly did nothing to render aid.
The Minneapolis Police Department “has allowed its officers to get away with policy and constitutional violations without fear of repercussion for decades,” Stevenson’s suit says.
Ethan Marks said he was at a demonstration May 28, 2020, with his mother when he was “shot in the eye with a tear gas canister from several feet away” that hit him so hard he was knocked out of his shoes.
Andrew Noel, a lawyer who represents Stevenson and Marks, said the police have yet to identify the officers who shot his clients, though they tracked down suspected rioters through video and social media. “If you can locate those folks, you’d better be able to identify the officers involved,” Noel said.
Lawyers for the city sought to dismiss the ACLU case based in part on a claim that officers faced a “rapidly evolving, violent and dangerous situation” that required less-lethal force to repel and disperse “unruly individuals.”
In March, a federal judge rejected that motion, ruling that the plaintiffs have plausibly accused city officials of having tacitly authorized police abuses or were indifferent to them.
In early June 2020, Minnesota’s state Department of Human Rights filed an emergency action accusing the Minneapolis Police Department of discriminating against people of color.
The city promptly agreed to a restraining order. As part of that deal, the use of rubber bullets against demonstrators is banned unless authorized by the police chief or someone he designates.
Vlatkovich, the mayor’s spokesman, said the police chief authorized use of less-lethal weapons during demonstrations in August.
The court agreement included a provision requiring timely and transparent discipline for officers who violate use-of-force policies. But the police and the mayor won’t identify any officer punished for misuse of less-lethal munitions.
The city has an appointed Police Conduct Oversight Commission, described as an “independent body which assures police services are delivered in a lawful and nondiscriminatory manner.” The commission can conduct audits but has no power over citizen complaints, officer discipline or law enforcement policies.
An analysis by the Minnesota Reformer, a nonprofit news site, found that fewer than 3% of the commission’s cases from 2013 to 2019 resulted in significant discipline of officers. It took an average of 18 months to resolve each case.
The city council is pressing to reorganize the roughly 800-officer police department, pushing to let voters decide whether the department should be replaced by a public safety agency under council control.
Frey opposes those efforts, arguing that he’s changing police customs and rules from within.
Lisa Bender, the city council president, said she’s seen no significant reforms under Frey’s leadership.
“There is public debate about the use of less-lethal force for crowd control,” she said, “but no public decision-making.”
The Minneapolis Police Department’s policy manual requires officers to file a report each time they discharge a less-lethal projectile. If someone is injured, an officer is required to notify a supervisor, which is supposed to result in an inquiry that must be documented.
It’s unclear whether officers complied with those policies during May and June 2020. In response to a public records request, the department supplied no records other than a spreadsheet summarizing how many munitions were discharged.
Attorneys for shooting victims said the city has secured protective orders to keep disclosures about police behavior out of public view.
Read more at USA Today.