Guest Factor: A few days in May

An officer who left Minneapolis PD tells his story.

This week’s guest essay is written by “Stephen,” who formerly was an officer with the Minneapolis Police Department. The Graham Factor is on vacation until mid-May.

I woke up somewhere in the vicinity of noon on May 25th, 2020.

That’s around when I typically woke up because I worked the “mids” shift — 3:30 PM to 1:30 AM. In between the steps of my regular “morning” routine, I checked my work email. I know I shouldn’t check work email from home, but it’s one of the bad habits I can’t seem to shake. I saw that Chief Arradondo had sent out an email. It was brief. It said that a male had died in MPD custody and that he had requested that the FBI investigate. 

When I read that I immediately knew it was bad.

I couldn’t have imagined just exactly how bad it really was though. I didn’t know that events had been set in motion which would drive me to leave the only police department I had ever wanted to work for.

When I arrived at work I got changed and reported for roll call as normal. I was told there were already protests happening in the Third Precinct. I was instructed to get my riot helmet, my baton, and my gas mask, make sure they were in order, and have them with me.

I walked into a back room in our precinct and watched the live feed from city surveillance cameras at 38th and Chicago. Huge crowds—hundreds of people—were gathering. The video didn’t have audio but as I watched live, I was able to recognize the tell-tale signs of a crowd scattering as they run from gunfire.

I’ve seen that particular phenomenon several times, both on video and in person.

We played the video back and saw a male walking through the crowd of protesters. He appeared to find someone he was looking for, produced a handgun, and shot at him. Then he got in a vehicle and left. I don’t believe he hit his intended target but he did hit at least one protestor, as you would expect from firing wildly into a crowd. It’s pretty much impossible to find any news reports about that shooting at this point.

There was of course no chance whatsoever of collecting any kind of physical evidence. I honestly have no idea how that shooting victim was brought to medical attention.

I believe I took one call for service before being sent to the riot line outside the Third Precinct. A drunk or otherwise intoxicated man was unable to stand and was outside on the sidewalk. A passer-by had called 911. As a police officer working an average summer shift in Minneapolis, you’ll get sent to this call somewhere between two and ten times in one day.

The atmosphere at this extremely routine call was deeply ugly. Again, I’m used to handling this kind of call many times a shift and it essentially never occasions any notice from the public. Cops and paramedics loading up a drunk have always been functionally invisible—just the machinery of society maintaining some semblance of order. Typically beneath notice.

This drunk didn’t want to get in the rig. People that never would have paid us a second’s attention were gathering and staring, recording us talking to him. The talking was fruitless. I am loath to use any degree of force on welfare check individuals at the best of times and I was coming to understand that this was very seriously not the best of times.

But calls were stacking up and the man needed to go to the hospital.

Talking was getting us nowhere so we eventually had to physically assist him onto the gurney. Basically just lifting him up under his arms, then using pressure on his shoulders to get him to lie back once he was on it so we could help get the belts on. Nothing to it, the kind of thing you’d do several times in a shift.

Then we got sent to the Third Precinct.

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I actually can’t remember exactly how we got there. I believe we drove our squad car to a staging area and were then brought closer to the station by some other method, possibly a bus. I’m not sure.

I remember seeing all the smashed and spray-painted squad cars—and the same damage done to officers’ personal vehicles in the precinct parking lot.

At some point, there was a severed pig’s head in the alley on the South side of the precinct, but I can’t remember if that was night one or night two. I do know that significant damage to the precinct itself had already been done by the time I was sent there the first night.

My partner happened to be a SWAT cop and was almost immediately absorbed into their ranks. I didn’t see him again for three or four weeks.

I was positioned at Lake & Minnehaha, directly in front of the precinct. There were something like 300 of us outside the station. There were many, many, many more than that facing us in the crowd.

I remember one young man walking down the line of silent cops, asking each of us in turn “did you know George Floyd?” I honestly have no idea what his goal was with that question but of course no, I didn’t. I hadn’t seen the video, and to be honest when I heard him asking the question I thought Floyd was the name of another MPD officer.

The rocks, bricks, and glass bottles were constant. Just constant. It wasn’t like the small riot that erupted around Trump’s campaign visit in 2019, where the violence waited for sundown. It was still broad daylight. That was nice because it gave you at least a chance to see and dodge the projectiles.

Once the sun went down you really didn’t have the same chance. You just stood there with your stupid helmet and your vest and took the rocks and hoped you weren’t one of the unlucky ones to get hit by a larger brick.

The people throwing things stood further back in the crowd. There were a couple of lines of people right up against the cops—and later, the pedestrian barricades—screaming at us, and then an endless stream of rocks flying in from behind them.

This is a big part of how the narrative of brutal “repression” of “peaceful protestors” gets built, of course. In the real world, there’s no clear delineation of violent rioters and peaceful protestors. They don’t wear uniforms or insignia. There’s just a mob.

It’s funny, in retrospect, how desperate you can feel for tear gas to be deployed.

You see, in the United States, we have the First Amendment. And we have a history of the police using violent tactics to break up peaceful protests and marches. So now, in 2020 and beyond, crowd control tools are carefully husbanded and only deployed at the explicit direction of an individual with a command position.

In the case of MPD, tear gas is controlled by SWAT. So how it would work is this:

  1. Peons like me would stand on the line and get hit with rocks. A sergeant for our section of the line would notify command on the radio “taking rocks and bottles.”

  2. Then we’d continue to get hit with projectiles. The sergeant would say again “taking rocks and bottles,” or maybe for emphasis she’d say “taking heavy rocks and bottles” or “two officers hurt.”

  3. After five, ten, or fifteen minutes of this a limited deployment of tear gas would be authorized.

This would give us a brief reprieve. Maybe as much as 20 minutes, but typically no more than about five.

For several hours I was also experiencing severe, piercing pain in my head because I hadn’t secured the buckles of my gas mask correctly and they were digging into my head under my riot helmet. I was eventually relieved for a brief break inside the station and was able to fix them.

I remember when, on the first night, the looting of the liquor store across the street from the precinct started. I was part of the line that pushed out from the station to get SWAT officers inside the liquor store so they could arrest the looters inside. We even held that line long enough for a contractor to get there and board up the store.

That was when we were still running on autopilot. During normal times, you can’t just leave a business or a home unsecured because people will wander in and steal things. So the city has contractors that will come out and board things up. Unbelievably, one of them even responded on the first night, drove into the riots, and did his best to secure the building.

The second we retracted our line back to the station—as we had to—looters ripped the boards off the liquor store, of course.

I remember radio traffic from dispatch reporting that 911 callers were telling us that people were using looted liquor to assemble Molotov cocktails behind the liquor store. This was and is darkly comedic to me because of course there was literally nothing we could do about it. Some number of the “protestors” were so used to thinking of 911 as being able to solve any issue that they still called 911—even when they had helped render it non-functional.

In order to take any location, you had to extend a corridor of officers from the station out to it. Extend that corridor too long and thin and it will just snap, resulting in cops trapped and isolated. Without question, any single cop or small cluster of cops trapped alone in that crowd would have been killed. Pistols are worthless against a crowd that outnumbers you hundreds or thousands to one, not that any of us would have fired indiscriminately into a crowd anyway.

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So we could do nothing about the Molotovs under construction, just listen to the radio announcing to us that they were being made.

There were also several members of the mob armed with rifles. Rifle rounds, if you aren’t aware, will punch right through standard police body armor and back out the other side.

I have heard it said that what causes PTSD is the belief that you or someone you care for will soon experience death or serious injury and you can do nothing about it. I don’t think I have PTSD from the riots, but I certainly experienced the conditions necessary for its creation. I just stood there and tried to look past the screaming faces and see if a Molotov was incoming. But realistically if one had shattered at my feet and started me on fire I would probably have just died. After all, it’s not like an ambulance was coming.

I think I went home around 7 or 8 AM that day. A little bit later than my usual quitting time of 1:30 AM. We were relieved by a much smaller force of Minnesota State Patrol troopers.

I was, of course, expected back at work at 3:30 PM. I think it was somewhere during the time I was asleep that the Chief marched with the nice safe early daytime protestors. None of the line cops saw him—or any member of department command—in person at any time during the riots. Nor did we hear them on the radio. Can you imagine that? The worst riots ever seen by the city and the Chief was a ghost in the wind. Ask me how I knew we were utterly abandoned and on our own. Ask me.

I believe it was the second night of riots that a group of protestors wheeled a man in a wheelchair up to the barricades we’d assembled with plastic zip ties. I would guess he had cerebral palsy, but I’m not sure. He clutched a pair of wire clippers in his hands and started to laboriously clip apart the zip ties holding the barricades together. The second officers moved to stop him from disassembling the barricades the people that had wheeled him up jumped back and whipped out their phones to record the impending brutality.

We wheeled him back behind the station and later he was most likely transported to the hospital, but again I really can’t be sure.

The arson started on night two. I remember watching the AutoZone start on fire. I watched—from one or two hundred yards away—the crowds of looters streaming into and out of the Target. I was helpless to do anything about any of it.

I watched the rioters build a barricade across Minnehaha Avenue, then set it on fire. I watched a man in a convertible—I think with some kind of head injury—drive through the burning barricade and crash. I watched the low-income housing project under construction start to burn.

That project burned throughout the night, sending flames hundreds of feet into the air. It burned so hot that you could also feel the heat intensely from hundreds of feet away. The heat of the fire softened the steel crane on the job site, and it wobbled precariously in the drafts but somehow never quite fell over.

I wasn’t surprised we hadn’t had any help on the first night. No one had expected or anticipated the crisis because of course, you can’t. But now it was the second night. What other agencies were coming? When would the National Guard be there? Why was it still just 300 Minneapolis cops? Why was the only help in the form of the transit cops taking Minneapolis 911 calls in the precincts? Why weren’t we on the phone with every agency in the state? When was leadership going to communicate anything to us?

By the end of night two, we already knew what was happening. Help wasn’t coming. It was just us.

I know to this day that city leadership claims that giving up the Third Precinct station wasn’t planned, but I was there. We all knew on the second night that was the plan. They might not even admit it to themselves, but what other possible outcome was there from their failure to act, followed by the deliberate withdrawal of resources from the line at the station?

Leadership didn’t want to be seen as brutal and repressive. They may not have liked the widespread looting and arson but they didn’t especially care, either. When it rolled into the third night and it was still just MPD officers on the ground it was very, very clear what was happening. The plan was to give them what they wanted—a police station—and hope that they would be satisfied and go home.

I was personally relieved off the line by state DNR1 officers at around seven in the morning after the third night of riots. I smelled of toxic smoke.

It was good to see the DNR officers but the major damage wasn’t happening during the daytime. The day was when the rioters rested and recharged. When I came back for the fourth day I learned I’d been pulled back to my home precinct to handle looting suppression there, and I knew then that was the night the precinct would be given up.

The Minnesota National Guard was ordered to secure locations in Saint Paul that were not under any threat. The Third Precinct was left to just a few dozen third precinct officers and some SWAT officers. A few dozen officers against a mob that had only grown in size and violence.

The news didn’t report this, but we were shot at every single night of the riots. Every night. The fact that none of us were shot is simply dumb luck. Drunken bad aim. In one case a bullet hit a half-inch wide bar of an iron fence instead of the cop standing behind it. One officer had his riot helmet smashed apart by a brick that would have likely been lethal otherwise. Rioters were using backyard slingshot launchers requiring teams of people to launch large, high-velocity projectiles at us from 60-100 yards away.

I’m just glad they didn’t have the laser-blinding idea yet.

Of course, it was obvious and known that if you reduced the size of the force holding the Third Precinct station it would be impossible to hold. So the administration did what they’d been planning to do and ordered it given up. Miraculously, National Guard soldiers started showing up within city limits afterward, instead of guarding deserted locations in Saint Paul.

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Somewhere in there Jeremiah Ellison issued a statement accusing us of brutality and simultaneously upbraiding us for not stopping the looting—a task that would have required another several hundred officers and busses to transport large numbers of arrestees. We didn’t have either of those things.

The rioter appeasement plan didn’t work. It was insane to think that it would have. They simply moved on to the Fifth Precinct. The riots didn’t end until the police were allowed to make arrests. This is the lesson that Portland still hasn’t learned. As long as there are no consequences for riots they will continue.

I personally learned several ugly lessons from the riots. The ugliest is this: The small percentage of the population that engages in regular criminal behavior during normal times is just a portion of the people perfectly happy to commit serious, destructive crime. I had always thought that the small group of people I encountered frequently during normal police operations constituted pretty much the majority of criminally active persons. I was wildly wrong. It really is true that fear of getting arrested by the police keeps huge numbers of people from just smashing and grabbing whatever they want and destroying everything else for fun.

When riots bottle up the cops and make it impossible for us to do our jobs, the gloves come off and the swarm activates. The looting and arson had nothing to do with Floyd. It was fun for them—you can see them laughing and dancing in all the videos. It was fun and they got free stuff and we couldn’t stop them because we were surrounded by a mob pelting us with bricks.

In the aftermath of the rioting, I left MPD. I wasn’t the only one. MPD was hiring at capacity prior to 2020. The Floyd riots put a complete stop to hiring for 2020 and the department is now roughly 400-some cops in the hole.

When my academy class was hired there were over 500 applicants, around 70 of them made it to backgrounds, around 30 of them went to the academy, and around 25 of them finished field training. I applied in the summer of one year and started the academy in the spring of the next. I started field training early that fall, and was released as a patrol officer almost exactly a year after my hire date.

If MPD was hiring 200 cops a year it would still take about three years to build back up to authorized strength as separations continue. And that would require literally thousands of applications to fill the ranks with applicants that meet the minimum qualifications. But the city wants applicants to meet even higher requirements now.

Even if they got the required number of applicants to hire that many people, they wouldn’t have the training capacity to train them. I would be beyond shocked if they were getting more than a handful of desperate, bottom-of-the-barrel applicants.

Minneapolis has destroyed an excellent police department. In my years there I can promise you that I helped save some unknowable but non-zero number of lives. All of us had experiences of jumping into street brawls and stopping them right as the guns came out, getting the guns, and preventing shootings. Everyone had the story about the time they were fighting with just one or two officers to arrest someone and only after the fight was concluded did they find the gun or the knife. Everyone has those stories. The public will never hear any of them.

Neither Chief Harteau nor Chief Arradondo ever made any effort to tell the public about good work done by the cops, so all they saw was Floyd and Damond. Hundreds of thousands of combined annual calls for service and stops, hundreds of arrests for murder, aggravated assault, aggravated robbery, rape, and weapons charges, all carried out with single-digit percentages requiring any force whatsoever. Leadership never made the slightest effort to communicate any of that and so it simply didn’t exist.

When it came time to draw on community goodwill to overcome a crisis there was nothing there because leadership had made a deliberate decision not to build any.

After all, why would you, when you can always just blame the cops? Will it matter to anyone that the Minneapolis murder rate is going to rapidly reach parity with Chicago and Baltimore’s? Will Mayor Frey or Chief Arradondo or any of the council members care? Why would they? There were 37 murders total in Minneapolis in all of 2016. As of the writing of this essay, three days into the month of May 2021, there have been 24 murders in Minneapolis. My loose prediction for the 2021 total is 120 murders. Will the Chief or the Mayor or the City Council accept a sliver of responsibility?

We shall see if there is any accountability for any of the elected or appointed leadership of the city. I very strongly doubt there will be.

If you are a current or former police officer, I invite you to submit your own “Guest Factor” essay to GrahamFactor@substack.com. I will not share your name or where you work without your permission. — Graham.

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Department of Natural Resources — Graham