It was the evening of May 30th, 2020, five days after Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. An 8 p.m. curfew was in effect, but a group of Minneapolis cops weren’t keeping the peace — they were sowing chaos. Armed with 40 mm “less-lethal” crowd control guns, which fire oversized, foam-tipped rounds, officers roamed the city, looking for an excuse to fire: “The first fuckers we see,” one cop brags, “we’re just handling them with 40s.”
The officers’ own body cams record them taking pot shots at largely peaceful protesters, and celebrating their hits with laughter and fist bumps. Cruising in an unmarked cargo van, one officer imitates Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny’s cartoon nemesis, saying: “Be vewy vewy quiet. We’re hunting activists.” A police commander used the same language in a recording captured after midnight: “Tonight it was… ‘We’re goin’ out hunting.’ Just a nice change of tempo,” he said, adding: “Fuck these people!’”
The extraordinary footage was released last week by the lawyer of a man who was caught up in an exchange of fire with police that night. (That man, Army veteran Jaleel Stallings, was exonerated by a jury in September for acting in self defense.) The footage, which was part of the evidence used in Stallings’ trial, also shows Minneapolis cops making racist comments, cursing protesters and journalists, slashing the tires of parked cars — in short, acting more lawless than the crowds they were supposed to be controlling that night.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey denounced the “behavior and language” in the videos as “antithetical to the department we are striving to build.” But critics of the department insist the body cams capture “a culture of violence and excessive force among the rank and file” of the Minneapolis PD. Teresa Nelson is legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. She blasts the “shocking level of impunity” on display in the footage, underscoring the cruel irony that the police that night were brutalizing “people protesting police brutality.” The cops appeared to be caught up, she says, in a warrior mindset of “us versus them.”
The body cam footage, first reported by the Minnesota Reformer, was provided to Rolling Stone by St. Paul defense lawyer Eric Rice, who says the videos capture the cops’ “malice” toward protesters as well as their reliance on disproportionate violence: “If someone is violating curfew,” Rice says, “they’re not supposed to just be shooting them without warning.”
The officers’ use of foam-tipped rounds was extremely dangerous, Rice insists. The impact munitions can bruise, concuss, and even kill. “They’re supposed to be less lethal than the live ammunition,” he says. “But they still do carry a risk of severe bodily harm or death.”
The officers would later claim that they were working to “stop looting” and “deter riotous behavior,” but the body cam footage does not support that. Rice says he’s not surprised by the discrepancy. After all, he says, if officers had said what’s apparent from the footage — “’We went out that evening and concealed our presence so people wouldn’t flee and we’d be able to get close enough to shoot them… and we were actually having fun shooting them’ — I mean, that is an admission to some very, very bad things.”
The Minneapolis PD did not respond to a request for comment, but an internal affairs investigation of the incidents captured on film is reportedly ongoing.
In one stark moment caught on a police body cam, a line of cops in the street confronts a small group of protesters on the sidewalk, raising their less-lethal arms, which resemble small shotguns. A female protester yells to the police, “We’re unarmed. What the fuck are we going to do to you? We’re out here peacefully protesting. This is fucking America!”
The video then captures explosions near the protesters’ feet. The cop whose body camera is recording then loads and fires, in quick succession, three less-lethal rounds. The third one connects with a targeted protester. “Gotcha!” the cop laughs as another approaches, giggling, to fist-bump him. “Great shot,” adds another.
Mayor Frey had justified the imposition of a curfew that night, citing the incursion of white supremacists into the city. One officer caught on tape pooh poohs that threat, insisting he wants to “prove the mayor wrong.” The same officer then immediately remarks that he can tell the protesters in the street are “predominately white — ‘cuz there’s not looting and fires.”
The body cam footage was originally evidence in the trial of Jaleel Stallings, the Army veteran who was caught up in the police violence that evening. Rice, Stallings’ attorney, said it was crucial to release the videos to give the public “firsthand evidence,” and to debunk statements by police and prosecutors that had cast his client as “an attempted cop killer.”
In the footage, officers armed with less-lethal launchers can be seen crowded in an unmarked, white cargo van. The van was equipped with police lights, Rice says, but the officers did not use them. As cops can be heard explaining, the van was the lead vehicle in a caravan of other, marked cars, and the cops wanted to use that stealth to their advantage. At one point an officer in the van asks for the trailing “black and whites” — the patrol cars — to stay far behind “so we can… utilize 40s,” referring to the launchers.
In the moments leading up to the encounter with Stallings, the officers are engaged — to describe it bluntly — in drive-by shootings of civilians using the less-lethal rounds. An officer can be seen firing a round, without warning, at a pedestrian on the sidewalk, hitting the man in the upper body. As he re-loads he shouts to a pedestrian holding what looks like a bag of takeout, “Go home!”
The officers next approach the parking lot where Stallings is standing, and immediately open fire with less-lethal rounds. “When they encounter Mr. Stallings,” Rice says, “they did not give any sort of warning or announcement that they were going to use force.”
Stallings was hit by one of the officer’s 40mm rounds. The Army vet, who is black, believed he was under attack by white supremacists, whom Mayor Frey had warned could be in town stirring up trouble that night. He fired back at the unmarked van three times with his legally registered and carried pistol. The rounds did not hit any of the officers, but the police can be seen cowering in the van as they shout out, “Shots fired!”
The van then halts and cops storm out, identifying themselves to Stallings for the first time. Stallings lay on the ground to surrender to the cops, who can be seen beating him. But he managed to get arrested without suffering life-threatening violence.
Stallings was later charged with eight counts, including attempted second degree murder and first degree assault. Despite the mitigating video evidence in the case, the charging attorney still wanted to throw the book at Stallings, asking him to plead guilty to counts carrying 13 years in prison, according to Rice.
Rather than accept this plea deal, Stallings pursued his right to a jury trial. This was a significant risk — as one assault charge alone carried a 10 year mandatory minimum sentence. In the end, the jury favored Stallings’ claim of self defense. The deliberations lasted just “three hours, including a lunch break,” Rice says. Stallings was found not-guilty in late July. He is now weighing a civil case.
The release of the violent footage has sparked outcry from city civil rights leaders. In a press conference, Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-MN, called for the firing of the cops seen shooting at peaceful protesters. “Police departments across this country have been hunting people for a long time,” he said. “We just caught them on camera today.”
Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer and past Minneapolis NAACP president, said it was “a miracle” that Stallings “escaped that encounter with the police” with his life. Decrying the “terrorism at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department,” she insisted, “It is beyond time for a paradigm shift.”
That shift could begin at the ballot box. Voters in Minneapolis will be weighing in November a historic proposition, known as Question 2, that would remove the police department from the city charter, and empower the City Council to replace it with a new Department of Public Safety. That new department would certainly include police, but minimum officer staffing requirements would be abolished, allowing for a reallocation of public funds to social services.
Mayor Frey, who is up for re-election in November, denounced the body cam footage as “galling.” But Frey is in charge of the police department, and his detractors on the city council are blaming him as an enabler of the department. “Also galling is spending the last year sweeping this violent behavior under the rug,” tweeted City Council President Lisa Bender, “disciplining zero officers, [and] carrying water for the Police Federation.”
Voters would do well to consider a complete overhaul of a police system that is “broken,” says Nelson, the local ACLU director. She says city leaders have adopted some policies that are progressive on paper, but have not changed behavior in the department. “There’s been almost no discipline for any of this misconduct and just a lack of any accountability whatsoever,” she says. “So I struggle with how we go forward with the police department. If these officers can’t be trusted, where do we go from here?