One year later, few charges for the arson and destruction

By: - May 27, 2021 6:00 am

Protestors set fire to the Minneapolis Police Department Third Precinct on May 28. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

More than 1,000 buildings were burned or damaged in Minneapolis in the days after George Floyd’s murder. Criminal charges have been filed in connection with 11 of them.

A year after ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed Floyd, setting off days of peaceful protest and nights of widespread destruction, nearly 100 people have faced felony charges in connection to the unrest. Most charging documents, however, seem to describe opportunistic burglars.

A fraction of the charges describe the defendants breaking into buildings or lighting fires, according to a Reformer review of citations and charges from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Hennepin County, Ramsey County, the city of St. Paul and the city of Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, 95% of the 520 misdemeanor citations issued to protesters in Minneapolis have been dismissed. 

As the Twin Cities were rocked by looting, vandalism and arson in the last days of May 2020, public officials placed the blame on politically motivated outside agitators. State and local leaders said organized criminals and extremists were traveling to Minnesota, taking advantage of the mass demonstrations and tensions to cause trouble.

So far, only one charging document explicitly links the accused to an extremist group, and none seem to describe especially crafty criminals. Most of the accused are Minnesota residents, with just over half living in Minneapolis or St. Paul.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is prosecuting Ivan Harrison Hunter, a resident of Boerne, Texas, on a charge of riot after he allegedly fired 13 rounds from a semi-automatic rifle inside the Third Precinct on May 28, the day it was set aflame. Hunter is a self-proclaimed member of the anti-government extremist group Boogaloo Bois, according to a news release from the office.

The vast majority of the accused allegedly posted videos of their activities on social media, were captured by surveillance footage as they took merchandise from stores or were apprehended by police as they stood inside or fled burgled buildings.

Fifteen of the 17 people charged with federal riot- or arson-related crimes are from Minnesota, but just three are from Minneapolis or St. Paul. About 40% of the people charged with felonies by Ramsey or Hennepin County — 31 out of 81 — are from outside the Twin Cities.

Even though damage and looting were more widespread in Hennepin County, there have been fewer charges there than in Ramsey County. Property damage in Minneapolis alone totaled more than $107 million, not counting business inventory losses, according to the Minneapolis Assessor’s Office.

Thirty-three people have been charged with felony crimes in six cities in Hennepin County, according to the county attorney’s office. The majority of the cases are linked to incidents in Minneapolis.

Most of the Hennepin County cases involve third-degree burglary charges — entering a building without consent to steal or commit another crime.

Three people were charged with second-degree burglary, among them two brothers who allegedly live-streamed a video of themselves inside the Third Precinct the day after it was set aflame. One brother was convicted of gross misdemeanor burglary; the other’s case is still open.

Just over half the Hennepin County cases have been resolved. Four people have been convicted of third-degree burglary, including one person who was among a group that broke a window at Target with a trash can, entered the store and took items. Two people facing felony charges were convicted of gross misdemeanors, and seven cases were referred to diversion programs.

Of the 81 charging documents from Hennepin and Ramsey counties, 13 allege the accused broke windows or doors to enter buildings.

A Minneapolis Police Department spokesperson did not make a department employee available for an interview about property damage and burglary investigations.

Axel Henry, a commander with the St. Paul Police Department, said the department “poured all its resources out into the street” when the civil unrest started in the days after the Memorial Day murder of Floyd. Even Henry — a member of an investigative unit — was in the field for two weeks while the department operated under an emergency deployment plan.

That plan meant officers were ready to respond to destructive outbursts, but it also meant they weren’t available to document crimes and process reports, Henry said. In the week after Floyd’s murder, more than 300 buildings in St. Paul were damaged.

“We as a department didn’t really have the ability to start going after these burglaries, criminal damage to properties, things of that nature,” Henry said. “So we were about two weeks behind the curve. We were already starting out with a deficit.”

The department rolled out a new online system for residents to report crimes and share video and photo evidence. Investigators used those reports to create a “monstrous haystack of cases,” which they narrowed down to about 300 of the most serious after reviewing footage and other evidence, Henry said.

“I am very comfortable that if anybody from the community would have stood over my shoulder during that (process), they would have agreed with the investigative decisions we made,” he said. “With the limits we had, we had to focus on the bigger (crimes).”

The result is that so far, 48 people have been charged with felonies in Ramsey County for crimes that took place on May 28 or 29 — the most destructive days during the unrest. Forty-one of them were charged with third-degree burglary. 

Seven were charged with second-degree burglary of a pharmacy in connection to a Walgreens on Grand Avenue that was broken into, and four were charged with second-degree burglary of a school after officers received a report of a burglary at Central High School and saw the group of teens and 20-somethings running from the building.

More than half the cases have been resolved. Seven people were convicted of felonies, and four people accused of felony crimes were convicted of gross misdemeanors.

Nearly one-third of the accused have been referred to diversion programs — treatment court or other remedies outside the legal system — or to victim-offender mediation through the county’s restorative justice program, rather than conviction.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is taking the lead on investigating arson- and riot-related crimes. So far, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has charged 17 people with such crimes, including four charged with setting or fueling fires at the Third Precinct.

The ATF tracked more than 160 fires across the Twin Cities after Floyd’s murder, said ATF spokesperson Ashlee Sherrill. That includes buildings set aflame by fires at neighboring structures and not necessarily damaged by individual instances of arson, she said. 

Solvable cases related to the unrest — those with reliable evidence and other leads — are still under investigation, Sherrill said. So far, charges have been filed in connection with 11 burned buildings, according to charging documents.

Arson is notoriously difficult to investigate because both the fire itself and the water to put it out destroy evidence. Nationally, about 20% of arson cases are resolved in court — the lowest rate of all major crimes.

Almost all misdemeanor charges dismissed

More than 600 people were cited or arrested for misdemeanors in the week following Floyd’s murder, according to records from the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The vast majority — 520 of the 612 — were in Minneapolis. All but 26 of those were dismissed. The City Attorney’s Office decided to drop all cases in which charges were related to peaceful protest and prosecuted only the cases involving other criminal conduct, like DWI or possession of a gun without a permit, a city spokesperson said.

While most of the incidents that resulted in felony charges took place on May 28 and 29, the majority of the misdemeanor citations were issued between May 30 and June 1, as law enforcement cracked down on curfew violations. 

In Minneapolis, 318 people were cited on May 31 for failure to comply with an order, unlawful assembly or violating the emergency declaration after a demonstration on the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River. Most of the citations were issued by the Minnesota State Patrol and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.

The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office didn’t respond to requests for comment. When asked about the arrests, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety said the State Patrol is responsible for traffic safety and referred the Reformer to the Minneapolis Police Department and Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. A Minneapolis Police Department spokesperson referred the Reformer to the State Patrol.

“Our job is to enforce the laws. We arrest/issue citations based off of what we see as violations of law. Once the charges go to the attorneys, whether it is the City Attorney or County Attorney, it is up to them how they are addressed,” the MPD spokesperson wrote in an email.

Civil liberties advocates say dropping the cases was the right move in the interest of protecting demonstrators’ First Amendment rights. 

Isabella Nascimento, an attorney with the ACLU-Minnesota, said using mass arrests as a crowd control tactic can have a chilling effect on demonstrations. Even if the charges are ultimately dismissed, the potential of being held in jail or ending up with a criminal record can deter people from exercising their First Amendment rights, she said.

Edward Maguire, an Arizona State University criminologist, said police are most effective when their work is highly focused. Research shows that most demonstrations contain three types of people: Protesters who are not supportive of destruction — typically the majority of the group; protesters who are supportive of destruction, who account for a small minority; and a small number of people who are not protesters and embed themselves in the crowd with criminal intent, he said.

If a few people are causing trouble, responding to the entire group with shows of force or mass arrests can radicalize the crowd, Maguire said. Plus, the charges typically don’t have enough evidence and fall apart in court, or are dismissed like in the Twin Cities, he said.

“Why bother making those junk arrests? Really focus on the people who are engaged in destructive and violent behavior,” Maguire said.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.