The police body-camera video showing the final moments of Thurman Blevins’ life was supposed to provide clarity and answers surrounding his death.
Instead, it has reignited the debate about how police interact with minority residents and whether the two officers who shot the 31-year-old armed black man in north Minneapolis earlier this summer did everything they could to keep a tense encounter from turning deadly.
Authorities who viewed the Blevins footage say the officers acted appropriately when responding to a 911 call and found someone matching the description of an armed and intoxicated man reportedly firing his gun into the air. Once confronted by the police, Blevins led the two officers on a foot chase into an alley despite being told repeatedly to stop and put up his hands. The footage appeared to show Blevins pulling the gun from his pocket before police shot him.
“The police didn’t create this situation, they didn’t even have control of this situation,” said Thomas Aveni, executive director of the Police Studies Council based in New Hampshire, adding that the vast majority of confrontations between police and citizens end peacefully. “When this guy took off running, de-escalation went out the window.”
Justin Terrell, executive director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, said that the officers escalated an already strained situation by leaping out of their SUV with guns drawn.
Blevins “had a gun, but it’s my understanding that Fourth Precinct officers have taken hundreds of guns off the street this year, so they know how to do it,” Terrell said.
The debate comes amid the anticipated release of body camera footage after St. Paul police shot and killed William “Billy” Hughes, a member of the White Earth Nation, on Aug. 5.
The Blevins incident is the latest in a series of high-profile police shootings of black men across the country that has put a greater focus on police use of force.
Increasingly, reaction to body-camera footage highlights the division between police and communities of color.
John Gordon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Minnesota chapter, said the video evidence in the Blevins case isn’t conclusive.
“I don’t think that the release of the video erased anybody’s doubt about anything, and I certainly would acknowledge that different people are going to see that video through different lenses and they’re going to interpret it through their own experiences,” he said.
Events unfolded on camera
City officials released the two body-camera videos on July 29. The following morning, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced he was not going to charge officers Justin Schmidt and Ryan Kelly. The two remain on administrative leave amid an internal investigation into whether they violated any department policies.
Freeman’s office evaluated the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s findings on the incident, which began on the afternoon of June 23.
About 5:28 p.m. that day, according to BCA’s report, Schmidt and Kelly were among the squads alerted to a report of a man firing a handgun into the air and at the ground. As they pulled up to that corner, their body cameras rolling, they saw Blevins sitting on the curb, next to a woman and a young child in a stroller. Almost immediately, Schmidt is heard on the video yelling out that he sees a gun.
Schmidt yelled, “Put your [expletive] hands up now!” as the two officers jumped out of their SUV, according to the footage. Instead, Blevins turned and started running, with the officers in close pursuit. As they chased him, they repeatedly ordered him to drop the gun.
They caught up to Blevins in an alley about a block and a half later, where Schmidt’s camera captured Blevins reaching for a gun at his waist. Schmidt and Kelly fired a combined 14 shots, striking Blevins four times. Each told state investigators they felt compelled to shoot out of concern that Blevins could quickly turn and fire back at them. Schmidt also told the BCA that he was worried that Blevins had already fired the gun once. Investigators discovered a spent shell casing at the scene from Blevins’ gun.
Jonathan Wender — a former police officer whose Washington state-based company, Polis Solutions, helps train law enforcement agencies to improve relations with the public, said that being dispatched to a call about a person with a gun would automatically put officers in a heightened state of alert, which may explain the officers’ coarse language ordering Blevins to surrender.
“Think about when you’re tired and you’re stressed … and you feel the tension in your own body, and it changes the way you talk, and it changes the way you think,” he said.
University of Minnesota sociology professor Michelle Phelps said some neighborhoods are still grappling with the legacy of police abuse going back decades.
“The police narrative is often to focus on, ‘Well this is a person who could cause harm,’ ” she said. “But the police actions in responding or trying to control that harm could also cause harm and not just in terms of stray bullets, but also in traumatizing the community and caused strained relations.”
The department’s policy allows officers to use deadly force to protect themselves or others from harm, or to “arrest or capture, or prevent the escape” of someone who is believed to have committed a serious crime. The policy goes on to say that officers should strive to use de-escalation when “safe and feasible,” taking into account such factors as whether a person’s failure to comply with an officer’s demands is due to mental impairment, a language barrier or drug or alcohol use.
Retired Dallas Deputy Police Chief Craig Miller said it is difficult to dissect an officer’s split-second decisions in stressful circumstances. Under law, he said, any use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, which is why prosecution of officers is so rare in fatal shootings.
The law makes “pretty clear-cut exception for officers,” he said.