The Minneapolis City Council approved a $1 million settlement Friday after a botched drug raid in 2010 in which an officer threw a "flash-bang" grenade into a south Minneapolis apartment burning the flesh off a woman's leg.
The payout to Rickia Russell, who suffered permanent injuries, was the third largest payout for alleged Minneapolis police misconduct on record.
Flash grenades are intended to distract and intimidate, not to injure people, but during the raid the device rolled under the legs of Russell, who was seated on a sofa, and exploded. The police were looking that day for a drug dealer, narcotics and a firearm, but found nothing.
Russell, now 31, suffered third- and fourth-degree burns that caused a deep indentation on the back of one leg, requiring skin grafts from her scalp. She is still undergoing physical therapy.
"What happened in this case was an accident," Minneapolis city attorney Susan Segal said in a statement. "It's very unfortunate that Ms. Russell suffered serious injuries, however, accidents like this are rare."
Yet incidents of fires, injuries and even deaths caused by the devices have led to costly settlements and policy changes in cities nationwide, including Minneapolis, where a 1989 fire started by a police grenade killed two people.
Russell's attorney, Bob Bennett, said that Russell did not want to comment publicly, but said "she was glad to have some closure."
Under the settlement, mediated by U.S. District Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, Russell will receive $600,000 and Bennett $400,000.
On the night of Feb. 16, 2010, 18 officers were executing a search warrant on the apartment at 5753 Sander Drive based on a tip that narcotics were being sold at the address by someone named David Conley.
In what Bennett called "a cascading series of errors," a Minneapolis police SWAT team smashed down the door with a battering ram without warning, when the search warrant police had obtained required officers to announce themselves before entering.
Police had applied for a "no-knock" warrant but did not get it, Bennett said.
Police insist they shouted "search warrant" before knocking down the door, according to police reports, and say the grenade was dropped on the door threshold and not rolled toward Russell. Officer Cliff Taylor wrote in after-action reports that he was the one who dropped the flash-bang grenade.
The department's instructions state officers should "toss the device ... ensuring that the area is free of hazards and people."
James Desmarais, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Johnson & Wales University, an expert hired by Bennett, said in a deposition that "the flash bang grenade was thrown blindly or Officer Taylor saw the adults and the flash bang grenade was thrown anyway.
"Both cases would violate all standards, policies, practices and training as well as legal mandates for such a use of force."
Russell, who was visiting her then-boyfriend Mario Bogan, was sitting on the corner of a couch, and Bogan was on the floor playing a video game with Willy Barron, a friend.
Russell testified in a deposition that she heard a loud noise, the door flew open and police tossed the grenade in her direction.
"It blew up," she told lawyers, "it was just a big boom, it was just light. The flash kind of blinded me a little bit. There was dust."
On police orders, she lay face down on the floor and officers handcuffed her. Then she noticed her leg was burning and told Bogan, who was lying face down next her. When Bogan tried to tell officers about Russell's injuries, she said they told him to shut up.
She said an officer then walked over, shined a light on her and uttered an expletive. "We have a problem," the officer said, "somebody call an ambulance." She said they grabbed towels from a table and stuffed them into her wounds.
Paramedics took Russell to the burn unit at Hennepin County Medical Center. The following day she had surgery, and remained hospitalized for two weeks. "Oh my God," she said in the deposition. "The pain level was beyond a 10."
Russell was arrested on a misdemeanor for having a "disorderly house" but never charged. She sued the city in federal court last year.
No discipline was imposed on the officers, Minneapolis spokesman Matt Laible said.
"Minneapolis police execute an average of 275 search warrants a year, and each one of them is a potentially dangerous situation," Segal said. "Their job is to execute these warrants while minimizing danger to officers and to those present where a warrant is being served.
"We have been conducting a thorough review of the incident and will make any changes that we determine will better safeguard the safety of our officers and the public," she said.
In August, the Star Tribune reported payouts for police misconduct were on pace to set a record this year.
The number of individual payouts for misconduct has dropped under police Chief Tim Dolan, but the cost of settling the cases has doubled.
The biggest was $4.5 million in 2007 to Duy Ngo, the Minneapolis police officer mistakenly shot in 2003 by another officer. The family of Dominic Felder, a mentally disturbed man shot to death in 2006 by police, won a $2.19 million settlement in June.
The February 2010 incident was not the first time city police started fires with flash-bang devices.
In 1989, a fire caused by one of the devices broke out during a raid, killing two elderly people in a North Side apartment. Police temporarily stopped using the devices, and the families were paid an undisclosed settlement.
In 2000, a flash grenade started a fire during a drug raid at a north Minneapolis triplex. No one was injured.
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