When a Minneapolis police officer claims post-traumatic stress disorder, they are likely to be met with a sizeable check from the city.
But in a 4-1 vote without discussion on Monday, council members struck down the first proposed PTSD settlement by a police officer to come before the body in recent years.
Members of the Policy and Government Oversight Committee (POGO) rejected a $145,000 worker's compensation payment to former Minneapolis police Sgt. Andrew Bittell, whose role in beating a Black man amid civil unrest days after George Floyd's murder resulted in a costly payout by the city.
In an interview, Council Member Robin Wonsley accused some MPD officers of filing disability claims as a means to flee the embattled department amid efforts to transform policing in the aftermath of Floyd's killing — and questioned why the city hasn't fought harder to challenge some of the most egregious cases.
Since June 1, 2020, the city has shelled out more than $24 million in worker's compensation settlements to roughly 150 Minneapolis police officers, according to a Star Tribune review of City Council minutes.
"There has been continuous concerns from the public around, 'Why aren't we challenging these claims?'" said Wonsley, who has consistently opposed the settlements. "I'm really hoping that our city attorneys use this as an opportunity to rethink their litigation approach."
Bittell, a former SWAT leader whose unit targeted civilians out past curfew on May 30, 2020, was caught on body camera footage instructing officers to fire rubber bullets at protesters without warning.
"Alright, we're rolling down Lake Street. The first [expletives] we see, we're just hammering 'em with 40s," Bittell said, referring to the non-lethal rounds.
That night, they shot at Jaleel Stallings, a 29-year-old Army veteran and legal gun owner, who returned fire at the SWAT team's unmarked van in self-defense, not realizing they were police. A swarm of officers descended on Stallings, who surrendered once police identified themselves. But Bittell and officer Justin Stetson continued punching and kicking him as he lay prone on the ground with a fractured eye socket.
The officers testified in court that the force was justified because Stallings was actively resisting arrest. That account later proved false with the release of video evidence.
Stetson eventually pled guilty to assault and misconduct charges — but only after a Hennepin County jury acquitted Stallings of attempted murder in the case and he won a $1.5 million settlement from the city.
Following Stallings' acquittal, the administration placed Bittell on non-enforcement duties as his own disciplinary case wound through the Office of Police Conduct Review, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation. He separated from the city a few months later, on Jan. 13, 2022, when he had three open complaints against him.
Bittell was just one of dozens of MPD officers who severed ties with the department while disciplinary cases for misconduct were still pending.
City Council members have publicly and repeatedly expressed concern over the escalating settlements for officers, even as most of them have voted to approve the payouts — often with price tags ranging from $100,000 to $200,000 each. City attorneys have long advised that rejecting such claims could lead to even more costly litigation.
"These payouts are turning out to be pretty untenable," Council Member Jeremiah Ellison told colleagues during a council meeting in April 2022. Even so, Ellison has continued to urge colleagues to approve them because he understands that "we either pay the entire claim or we pay these settlements."
"In the spirit of saving money, that is why I vote for them," Ellison, who chairs of the POGO committee, said last month as they weighed whether to approve another round of $1.4 million in worker's compensation claims.
He noted that a recent state law change requiring public safety workers suffering from PTSD to undergo 24 to 32 weeks of treatment before they can be eligible for state disability pension benefits might help rein in those costs.
Minneapolis has spent nearly $34 million since June 1, 2020, to cover wage replacement, medical payments, settlements, and other claim-associated expenses for MPD employees, according to city data.
On Monday, Council members Wonsley, Jason Chavez, Emily Koski and Andrew Johnson all rejected Bittell's claim and moved to return the matter to city staff. (Ellison was absent while attending an out-of-state conference).
Council Member LaTrisha Vetaw cast the lone vote to approve, later telling the Star Tribune that she was continuing to follow legal guidance.
"We've been instructed by our lawyers that this is different than a lawsuit against someone who violated Jaleel Stallings' rights," Vetaw said. "We've seen the video, we know there was a lie in this case. This officer is no longer here, but legally the council is bound to [workers'] comp settlements."
Immediately following the roll call, deputy city attorney Erik Nilsson reminded elected officials that "prior misconduct is largely not relevant to whether an employer is obligated to pay benefits."