On his fourth straight day of peaceful protest, Soren Stevenson linked arms with demonstrators gathered at the Interstate 35W on-ramp, staring down a phalanx of Minneapolis police in riot gear.
Without warning or provocation, bystanders say, officers fired a series of flash bang grenades and tear gas to disperse the crowd. A nonlethal police projectile struck Stevenson in the face, exploding his left eye and leaving him partly blinded.
Nearly a week after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis officers, the state’s largest police force struggled to restore order amid unrest in its smoldering city. Although police officials acknowledge that some innocent civilians were injured during days of protests and riots, they argue that the situation required force to maintain public safety and it was difficult to distinguish between peaceful protesters and those wishing to cause harm.
But interviews with activists, elected officials and use-of-force experts suggest that police at times used extreme measures against the protesters, in violation of department policy, and missed several opportunities over the first few days to defuse tensions. Widely shared videos caught law enforcement officers indiscriminately spraying chemical irritants outside squad cars, at nonviolent groups and in the face of a journalist held at gunpoint, whose credential was visible. In other instances, officers shot marking rounds at civilians on their own property. One business owner even testified before the state Senate that he was hit with chemical irritant by police while guarding his family’s East Lake Street gas station from looters.
“It seems hard to fathom that it was a mistake,” said Stevenson, 25, whose May 31 injury required several surgeries to reset facial bones and remove the eye. “We couldn’t have been more than 30 feet away and I wasn’t moving.”
Since Floyd’s death, allegations of misconduct and excessive force have poured into the city’s Office of Police Conduct Review. The civilian review board is now investigating more than 400 such complaints against the MPD — an unprecedented number that has, in a matter of weeks, surpassed annual complaint totals of previous years, officials said. And those figures are expected to rise.
While specifics of the complaints are not yet public, the Star Tribune has identified two recent cases that are under investigation. One complaint, filed internally, involves Facebook posts purportedly made by Officer David Peña, who used a fake name to mock protesters and encourage looting in a neighborhood that is home to much of the city’s East African population.
Another is related to the actions of an unidentified Minneapolis police sergeant caught on camera pepper spraying a VICE news correspondent in the eyes even after he repeatedly identified himself as a member of the press.
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, who acted as a special operations spokesman during the unrest, filed an internal complaint after being alerted to the incident by a state senator, who described it as “an egregious, gratuitous attack.” Schnell declined to comment further, saying “the e-mail speaks for itself.”
“I believe the conduct to be wholly inappropriate and contrary to MPD policy,” Schnell wrote in an e-mail that was later shared with members of Gov. Tim Walz’s staff.
When asked by a reporter last month about how he would rate his department’s response to the rioting, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said that tactical decisions were made based on “preservation of life.”
In a more recent interview, he said that his department would take a hard look at the use of pepper spray and projectiles on protesters during mostly peaceful demonstrations. The chief has since presented a new policy that requires his authorization for any “crowd control weapons” to be used during a protest, at the behest of state officials. “That’s certainly a change from allowing supervision on the ground to make that call, because of the serious nature of that kind of level of less-lethal force,” Arradondo said.
For the average Minneapolis resident, the complaint filing process can be a labyrinthine, said Elizer Darris, an organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota. Those who do attempt it often lose confidence in a system that rarely results in discipline for the officers accused of wrongdoing, he said.
“Faith in that particular process has eroded pretty dramatically,” said Darris.
Last month, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of journalists who were threatened, assaulted and arrested while covering demonstrations in the wake of Floyd’s death. The organization has since turned its attention to protesters maimed at the hands of law enforcement. Several attorneys have already notified the city clerk’s office that lawsuits are pending regarding injuries inflicted by police during the unrest.
Freelance journalist Linda Tirado filed a federal lawsuit against city and state law enforcement officers after losing her left eye to a police projectile while outside the Third Precinct in south Minneapolis. She is among at least two dozen people who suffered traumatic eye injuries during recent U.S. protests.
So-called kinetic impact projectiles, including rubber bullets and 40-mm “less lethal” foam rounds, are commonly used in crowd-control situations. But MPD’s own use of force policy states that 40-mm rounds can cause grievous injury and should be reserved “for the incapacitation of an aggressive, noncompliant subject,” and “unless deadly force is justified,” officers should aim for large muscle groups in the lower extremities. The policy explicitly advises against targeting a person’s head and neck.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology was so troubled by the extent of life-altering eye injuries last month that the medical group took a rare public-policy stance asking law enforcement to immediately cease use of rubber bullets as a form of crowd control.
“Americans have the right to speak and congregate publicly and should be able to exercise that right without the fear of blindness,” physicians wrote in a statement. “You shouldn’t have to choose between your vision and your voice.”
Critics also say that tear gas is increasingly being used as a crowd dispersal tool, part of the ongoing militarization of police forces around the country.
According to best practices, the gas should only be deployed at the edge of demonstrations to minimize protesters’ exposure.
But, in the days after Floyd’s death, social media lit up with photos and videos of officers firing canisters into the middle of large, densely packed crowds or spraying the gas at protesters from moving vehicles.
Amid backlash, cities like Seattle and Philadelphia have temporarily stopped its use, while other places are mulling similar bans.
In Minneapolis, the debate over the post-Floyd law enforcement response followed days of intense clashes between police and demonstrators.
MPD supporters contend that police used force in response to an escalation of violence from some protesters — pointing out that officers were pelted with bricks and bottles on a nightly basis — and blame city leaders for allowing the riots to get out of control before intervening. There were numerous reports of officers taking gunfire in the field, though none were struck.
Authorities fired their weapons at least twice during the unrest — once when a downtown motorist swerved into and nearly struck two police officers in a utility vehicle and again when a National Guardsman fired at a car that was driving toward a police blockade on Washington Avenue.
Some of the criticism leveled at the MPD echoed complaints made after the 18-day occupation of the Fourth Precinct police station that followed the 2015 killing of Jamar Clark. A federal after-action report found numerous instances in which officers used “less-lethal and nonlethal weapons” on protesters during the occupation, in clear violation of department policies, and often failed to document their actions. Federal officials also recommended that the department “strengthen, train on, adhere to and enforce the use of force policy — especially as it relates to the use of chemical agents.”
City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents the North Side, said he thinks that, had police done more to control the situation on the first night of unrest, things may not have snowballed as they did.
“Obviously, by the third night the whole situation had grown into an unmitigated disaster,” said Ellison, among the most vocal proponents of dismantling the police force. “The tactics being used by protesters [on the first night] seemed mild enough that you could have successfully de-escalated the situation.”