Hennepin County prosecutors will not charge the two police officers who fatally shot Thurman Blevins, a decision announced Monday hours after just-released body camera footage showed the deadly encounter in a north Minneapolis alley.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said that the officers’ actions were justified after a foot chase in which an armed Blevins led them into an alley. Officers encountered Blevins after a 911 caller reported that someone fitting his description appeared to be intoxicated and was firing a gun at the ground and into the air.
The release of the video did not defuse some of the tensions that have erupted over the case, as a small group of protesters overtook Freeman’s news conference Monday to demand greater police accountability. The two officers, Justin Schmidt and Ryan Kelly, remain on paid leave during the internal investigation.
Freeman said later that his decision was based on witness testimony, the body camera video and forensic testing, which he said proved that Blevins, 31, had a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun in his hand, refused multiple commands to drop the gun and fired it during the fatal foot chase June 23. “Their decision to use deadly force against Mr. Blevins under those circumstances was authorized [under the law],” Freeman said.
Blevins’ relatives and supporters said that police did not have to resort to deadly force. Shortly after Freeman started the news conference at the Hennepin County Courthouse, demonstrators in the room started calling for the officers’ termination while decrying what they saw as the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on blacks.
“The family is hurt. The family is devastated. We knew everything was going to play out exactly the way it played out. We were prepared,” Blevins’ cousin Sydnee Brown said from the dais. “I don’t want the media and the world to think we’re angry. We’re not angry. We’re more so disgusted. We’re disgusted by the leaders of the world, we’re disgusted by the leaders of Minneapolis and Minnesota.”
A swift decision
A trove of investigative material released by Freeman and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension revealed a detail previously not noticed in the body-camera footage — Blevins shot his handgun during the chase. But authorities are not certain whether he or the officers fired first.
“When Mr. Blevins fled from the officers with a loaded handgun, refused to follow their commands for him to stop and show his hands and then took the gun out of his pocket and turned toward the officers, Mr. Blevins represented a danger to the lives of Officer [Justin] Schmidt and Officer [Ryan] Kelly,” Freeman said in a statement.
Police union President Lt. Bob Kroll said the officers had no choice but to shoot. He expressed disappointment with city and police leaders for not backing the two officers.
“When [Blevins] comes around with that gun in his hand, the whole time he’s looking back getting position of where the officers are to acquire a target to shoot them,” Kroll said. “At that point, he’s fair game. He had not complied, he’s armed with a gun, he’s already discharged that gun.”
It was not possible to independently verify with absolute certainty the sequence of shots based on the footage.
Authorities determined a lone cartridge casing recovered near Blevins’ body was fired from his gun. Also, “cartridge cases associated with [Blevins’] gun” bore his fingerprints, according to Freeman’s account of BCA testing and analysis.
“We can’t tell for sure that Blevins shot at the officers. That certainly seems to be the case,” Freeman said, adding that officers had “sufficient justification” to shoot when Blevins pointed a loaded gun near them.
The officers fired 14 shots from their weapons, four of which struck Blevins, Freeman said.
Freeman’s decision comes as law enforcement agencies around the country are grappling with when to release body- and dash-camera videos from police killings. Minneapolis joins places like Chicago and Los Angeles in releasing police video soon after a controversial shooting.
Freeman attributed his relatively swift decision to the availability of body camera video, cooperation from officers and making the decision himself, rather than deferring to a grand jury.
Freeman also released a detailed account of the BCA report, saying Kelly “heard the man shoot, then [he] saw the silver handgun pointing directly at him. At that point, Officer Kelly said he shot, and the man went down.” The officer added that he was “pretty sure” Blevins fired his weapon.
In an interview with the BCA, Kelly said that as he followed Blevins into the alley, he worried that he was being drawn into an ambush.
“He’s not trying to get away from me. He’s not trying to get away from us at all,” Kelly said he told investigators. “He’s trying to find a spot to stop, and trying to find a spot to whirl and start shooting.”
Schmidt was closer to Blevins and the first of the two officers to fire at him, according to the BCA. He explained, the BCA said, that once he saw Blevins take the gun from his pocket, “I feared for my life. I feared for my partner’s life.”
He said he aimed at Blevins and shot him multiple times.
“To me, he had every bit of intent on shooting my partner and I,” Schmidt said in his BCA interview. “I gave him numerous chances to give up. And he continued to escalate the situation by first grabbing onto his firearm, then clearing it from his pocket, that he kept looking over his shoulder to me as showing he wants to know where I am at.”
The footage released Sunday night captures the scene from the officers’ perspectives. They can be heard repeatedly screaming at Blevins to drop his gun as he pleads with them not to shoot.
Shortly after the shooting, a BCA agent spoke with the unidentified 911 caller, who said he had been hanging out with Blevins in the area of 46th and Bryant avenues N. when Blevins started firing off his gun and then punched another man. The caller was worried because Blevins appeared drunk and there were kids playing nearby.
Schmidt and Kelly arrived to find Blevins standing on a street corner with his girlfriend, 28, who was pushing her infant daughter in a stroller and walking a dog. Schmidt and Kelly immediately exited the squad, with Schmidt telling Blevins to “Put your [expletive] hands up.”
The footage shows Blevins taking off running down the street as the officers repeatedly ordered him to drop his gun over Blevins’ protests and denial that he has a gun. He turned into an alley less than two blocks away, saying “Please don’t shoot me!” just before the footage shows something in his right hand. Schmidt and Kelly fired, and Blevins collapsed as a gun fell to the ground. Moments later, he was dead.
Court records show that Blevins had several criminal convictions over the past decade. He was convicted in 2010 of being a felon in possession of a firearm and of fleeing Minneapolis police in 2008 and 2012. He also pleaded guilty in 2015 to one count of fourth-degree assault for spitting at and kicking a Park Police officer. A minor drug possession charge was dismissed June 8.
In a statement Monday, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo declined to discuss the incident, citing the internal investigation, but said he accepts and respects Freeman’s decision.
Mayor Jacob Frey ordered the release of the video Sunday night, a move that officials said was aimed at providing greater transparency and to ease tensions amid fatal police shootings of black men in Minneapolis and elsewhere. The mayor, who described the footage as “traumatic,” declined to address the actions of Blevins or the officers.
Officials said it was the first time that the recording devices, which are increasingly being deployed by law enforcement across the country, captured a fatal police shooting in Minneapolis.
Blevins’ family was shown the video just 30 minutes before the city released it, a city spokesman said, while some city and police officials saw the footage on Friday.
While a protest was planned for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Hennepin County Government Center, protesters stayed contained to Freeman’s news conference Monday. But only five weeks later, what happened continued to reverberate.
Bishop Richard Howell, a prominent North Side faith leader, said the situation could have been handled better.
“Mr. Blevins will never come back again, he will never return to the community, he’s gone forever from this community. Was it worth it, yes or no?” he said.
Staff writer Randy Furst contributed to this report.