A Ramsey County grand jury has cleared two Roseville police officers in the February shooting death of John Birkeland.
In a “no bill” decision out Thursday, the grand jury decided not to bring criminal charges against Kyle Eckert and John Jorgensen.
The decision comes amid outrage over the killing of Philando Castile, who was shot by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop Wednesday in Falcon Heights.
Birkeland, 52, was hiding in a bedroom closet of his apartment with a knife when Eckert and Jorgensen confronted him Feb. 10. Family members said he struggled with depression and had problems with alcohol.
Birkeland is one of 148 people who have died in an encounter with law enforcement in Minnesota since 2000. A Star Tribune investigation last month found that at least 45 percent of those who died either had a history of mental illness or were having a mental health crisis at the time. No officer has been charged in any of those deaths.
Birkeland’s relatives testified this spring at the Legislature in St. Paul, urging passage of a bill that would have required mental health crisis training for officers.
The officers had gone to Birkeland’s apartment that night in February after neighbors called 911 saying they heard someone screaming profanities and causing a commotion in his apartment.
According to a memo from Ramsey County Attorney John Choi released Thursday, officers forced their way into Birkeland’s apartment after he refused to open his door and they couldn’t reach him on the telephone, because they were concerned for his safety. Birkeland had told them through the door he had been robbed and couldn’t find his wallet.
The officers warned they were coming in with the dog, according to the memo. When they checked the bedroom, the dog scratched at the closet door and they found Birkeland “crouching at the far end of the closet.”
When he didn’t come out as ordered, the dog went in and bit Birkeland’s right knee. Birkeland was holding a large knife and stabbed the dog. Then, Birkeland “lurched” toward the open closet door and both officers fired. He was shot three times.
In a statement, Roseville Police Chief Rick Mathwig said the officers “acted out of necessity.”
The police dog was “brought to the scene as a less-than-lethal option, further expanding the officers’ efforts not to use deadly force unless it was the only option left to defend themselves.” He said the department is committed to training its officers in mental health crisis intervention.
Birkeland’s struggles were familiar to Roseville police.
In May 2015, Birkeland was in a restaurant threatening to kill himself and told officers he wasn’t taking his medications for depression. Another time officers sent him by ambulance to the hospital after he expressed suicidal thoughts at an unemployment office where he had been refused benefits.
Last December police charged him with a misdemeanor after he gave them a false name when they tried to help him get to a detox center.
Family members said Birkeland was born in Bagley, Minn., one of 11 children, and had been a high school valedictorian. His sister Carla Tice said he graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in mass communications and had worked at a Target store and for various phone companies around the country. He was unemployed when he was killed, she said, and told family he had a job lined up in Florida.
Her brother had been passionate about politics and equal rights, Tice said, and often volunteered at the L.I.S.T.E.N. Center, a recreation center in Grand Forks for people with development and intellectual disabilities. He would drive people in a van to watch sports games.
He was also famous in the family for making birthday CDs with hits from the time the family member was born. A month before he was killed, he had sent Tice a CD he labeled “Inspired Passion and Fun 2016.”
“He was the favorite Uncle John of every niece and nephew of 11 kids,” Tice said.
Officers Eckert and Jorgensen were involved in a previous fatal shooting of a man with mental health issues. In October 2014, as part of the East Metro SWAT team, they shot and killed pipeline foreman Billy Holt when Holt dashed out of his trailer holding a rifle.
Holt had told officers that night that he had been robbed and was being held at gunpoint inside his trailer. Police later said they think Holt was paranoid and delusional.