A Ramsey County grand jury on Wednesday cleared two St. Paul police officers of wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of an armed man who reportedly had a history of mental illness.
Police shot and killed Justin Todd Tolkinen, 28, in March after a neighbor reported that he was wearing what appeared to be a bullet-resistant vest, holding an assault rifle and screaming about the government and other things. After a crisis negotiator was unsuccessful in trying to communicate with Tolkinen, a police SWAT team used nonlethal force in hopes of taking Tolkinen in custody. Officers said they shot Tolkinen after he pointed a rifle at them.
The grand jury returned a “no bill” decision on the shooting after determining that the officers’ use of “deadly force” was authorized under the requirements set out in state law and that there was no probable cause to charge either St. Paul officer.
Tolkinen’s father, Todd, who lives in Texas, said the officers should have been charged the officers because, he maintains, his son was unarmed. “He was very aware of his constitutional rights and asked the police officers if he was under arrest or if he did anything wrong and they responded no and he asked them to leave his property,” he said. “He never had a gun. … This isn’t over yet.”
The incident began about 3:15 p.m. on March 16 when Tolkinen’s neighbor called police.
According to the investigation report, Tolkinen and a woman he was dating had been drinking since early in the morning before she left in the afternoon. When officers arrived, Tolkinen was wearing a tactical body armor vest over his bare chest and holding an assault rifle, according to the investigation. He eventually placed the rifle inside the door to his house while standing on the deck with the screen door open. Officers also reported seeing an handgun magazine in the front pocket of his vest.
Court records indicate that Tolkinen had been committed on numerous occasions in the 2000s in Washington and Ramsey counties for mental illness and chemical dependency. He was civilly committed for six months at Regions Hospital in St. Paul from July 2008 to January 2009. Last year, he was convicted of drunken driving, ordered to chemical dependency treatment and placed on two years’ probation, according to court documents.
Tolkinen’s father said his son was committed for mental health reasons because it was the best way to get treatment for his drug addiction, Todd Tolkinen said.
A crisis negotiator reported Tolkinen went from screaming to ranting to quiet to screaming again and didn’t follow police commands to step away from the door and allow it to shut in order to put a barrier between him and the rifle.
When negotiations failed, the SWAT team moved in, firing beanbag rounds, according to the investigation. As officers approached the deck, Tolkinen reportedly moved into the house and picked up the rifle. Officers said they fired after he aimed the rifle at them.
Investigators said the assault rifle, with two magazines loaded, had a combined total of 59 live rifle rounds. In the living room, officers found a .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic handgun, empty rifle magazines and loaded handgun magazines. A loaded semiautomatic handgun and a loaded assault rifle magazine was found in the master bedroom. More guns and ammunition were found in a second bedroom, including three semiautomatic handguns, three assault rifles, a shotgun, a tactical, pistol-grip shotgun, a gas mask, a box of medical-type rubber gloves and a large knife in a sheath.
Toxicology tests showed Tolkinen had a .17 blood alcohol level at the time of his death.
“The larger issue here is the daily volume of calls that officers respond to involving people who are battling mental illness and the lack of resources to effectively address their mental health issues,” St. Paul Police Sgt. Mike Ernster, the department’s spokesman, said late Wednesday.