Minneapolis council committee rejects $145k workers’ comp settlement to cop involved in beating
The Minneapolis City Council approved over $22 million in workers’ compensation settlements for 144 Minneapolis police officers in the two years after George Floyd’s police murder.
But on Monday, a council committee took the unusual step of declining to approve a settlement with an officer involved in an excessive force case.
The Policy & Government Oversight Committee voted 4-1 against approving a $145,000 settlement with a former SWAT team leader whose unit drove around in an unmarked van firing rubber bullets at people without warning five days after Floyd’s killing. They wound up severely beating two men after one of them fired back.
Sgt. Andrew Bittell and Officer Justin Stetson beat Jaleel Stallings for 30 seconds — sending him to a hospital with a fractured eye socket — after Stallings fired back at the SWAT team. Stallings claimed self-defense, saying he didn’t know they were cops. He was acquitted by a jury of eight charges, including two counts of attempted murder.
The Minneapolis City Council committee voted to send the proposed settlement back to the City Attorney’s Office, even though Deputy Minneapolis City Attorney Erik Nilsson told the council members that misconduct isn’t relevant to whether the city is obligated to pay workers’ compensation benefits.
Workers’ comp is a benefit for workers hurt on the job.
The committee approved nine other settlements totaling about $1 million.
The chair of the committee, Robin Wonsley, said in a statement to the Reformer that many of the officers who’ve gotten settlements have “engaged in gross misconduct that have produced many victims and have cost taxpayers over $77 million in liability settlements” since 2012.
She said that’s why she and a few of her colleagues have consistently voted against the settlements.
“He brutally beat and wrongfully jailed Jaleel Stallings just days after MPD murdered George Floyd, and he and other officers continued lying to cover up their crimes,” Wonsley said. “Officers who have a proven history of lying on the record should make city leaders think twice before rubber-stamping a worker’s compensation claim.”
Former Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has also accused the officers of lying, saying he erred in prosecuting Stallings.
While some council members vote against the claims here and there, normally they get enough votes to pass, despite several council members’ discomfort with the steady stream of six-figure settlements — some to cops with lengthy disciplinary records.
The City Attorney’s Office has advised the council that settling the cases is cheaper than going to trial.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey released a statement saying, “I understand the council’s frustration because I share it. Generally, these settlements are approved not because the city wants to but because the alternative could be more expensive. That was the reason for the City Attorney’s Office recommendation today.”
Bittell led a SWAT team in a white, unmarked cargo van that crept down Lake Street as MPD struggled to get control of the city after days of protests, riots and fires. On May 30, 2020, protests had ebbed but a curfew was in effect.
Body camera videos show Bittell turn to his SWAT unit and say, “Alright, we’re rolling down Lake Street. The first f***ers we see, we’re just hammering ’em with 40s” — a reference to so-called less lethal 40mm launchers or rounds sometimes referred to as rubber bullets.
Stallings was standing in a parking lot with several others when officers fired at them from inside the van. Stallings, an Army veteran and St. Paul truck driver, later told jurors he thought he’d been hit with real bullets and didn’t know the shooters were cops because they were inside a white van with the police lights off.
Body camera footage shows the officers’ accounts to investigators were inaccurate. During a debriefing after Stallings was arrested, Bittell neglected to tell a responding officer that the SWAT team fired first, and implied Stallings shot at the van unprovoked.
Although a city misconduct investigation into the incident is still underway, Stetson was the only officer who was charged with a crime after a state and federal investigation. In May, he agreed to plead guilty to felony assault and misdemeanor misconduct, with the felony dismissed if he completes two years of supervised probation.
Bittell and Stetson later testified their use of force was justified because Stallings was resisting arrest, and they feared he was armed, although neither frisked him before beating him.
Bittell acknowledged the unit shot civilians multiple times while going down Lake Street, calling the technique “pain compliance.”
“This was the fifth night, sir, and the most chaotic scene I’ve ever seen as a police officer in 23 years,” he testified. “My group had been fired on earlier the previous night so, yes, I — we felt we could at any time be fired upon.”
Under oath, Bittell denied hitting Stallings in the back of the head, saying he only kicked him. Parking lot surveillance video showed otherwise.
When Stallings’ attorney implied Bittell’s memory was muddy, he said, “I was — I was fearing for my life. I, I, I was fired upon by — with a rifle. I was thinking about my children and my wife. Everything was crystal clear and I knew I had to take him into custody.”
Updated 9:04 a.m. Tuesday to include mayor’s comment.