Former Minneapolis police officer Justin Stetson stands guard over the Third Police Precinct on May 27, 2020, during protests of George Floyd’s killing. Photo by Chad Davis.
“I am sorry,” former Minneapolis police officer Justin Stetson said Wednesday in a Hennepin County courtroom.
Stetson’s apology was a remarkable turn in a case that began nearly three years ago with police and prosecutors describing Stetson’s victim — Jaleel Stallings — as a would-be cop killer.
Also striking: Stetson’s admission, in a letter of apology to Stallings, saying his actions reflect a “deeper, historical and institutional problem with the Minneapolis police and how some officers have responded poorly to the urban communities.”
“I have realized there is a lack of trust in police, especially on the part of nonwhites, and that this lack of trust is foundationally related to interactions that individuals, like yourself, have had with particular officers, like myself,” he wrote. “The violence visited upon you that night has been felt by all our citizens.”
That makes Stetson a rare police officer in the troubled history of the department to break the infamous blue wall of silence.
Stetson was dressed in a gray suit and closely cropped haircut in the courtroom. He said he was part of a SWAT team trying to regain control of a chaotic city five days after George Floyd’s police murder — amid arson, riots and protests — and saw a few people breaking curfew, standing in a Lake Street parking lot.
An officer fired at them with 40mm plastic projectiles.
Stetson said in court he saw a man crouch down as if he was reaching for a rock or something, so he fired, too.
Stallings is an Army veteran who had gone out that night to protest police misconduct.
He was struck in the chest with a 40mm plastic round, and — not knowing the van was filled with police officers — fired back with his pistol, thinking they were white supremacists the governor had warned the public about. Stallings purposely missed, hoping to scare them off, he later testified.
Stetson said he saw Stallings point the gun and shoot at the van, and saw the bullets ricochet off the pavement, sparking, in front of the van. The SWAT team spilled out of the van, yelling “Shots fired!” Realizing they were cops, Stallings dropped his gun and fell flat on the ground, arms out, surrendering.
Stetson repeatedly kicked Stallings in the face and head, punched his head multiple times, slammed his head into the pavement, and kneed his face. Stetson beat Stallings so badly he said his hands and feet hurt afterward, and wondered aloud whether he broke his hand, according to court documents.
In the courtroom Wednesday, Stetson said he didn’t know where the gun was when he approached Stallings, but admitted he crossed the line, let his emotions get the best of him and used excessive force.
Stetson agreed to a plea deal Wednesday in which he pleaded guilty to a felony assault charge and misdemeanor misconduct charge, although the felony will be dismissed if he completes two years of supervised probation. He must enroll in an anger management course; will never be allowed to be a Minnesota police officer again; cannot use firearms; and will serve 30 to 90 days of community service. District Judge Shereen Askalani scheduled sentencing for Aug. 9.
In the letter to Stallings, Stetson acknowledged and apologized for his actions and the role that MPD has played in society’s “historical mistreatment of the disadvantaged communities and against those engaged in peaceful civil protests”
“Individual actions — mine — do have a strong and indelible impact on the relationship between authorities and the people,” Stetson wrote.
Stallings said in an interview he was disappointed in the “extremely lenient” deal, which he sees as a “slap on the wrist.”
“I was held to a high level of accountability,” Stallings said.
Stallings wound up hospitalized with a fractured eye socket and charged with eight crimes, including attempting to murder police officers. He was acquitted by a jury after body camera and surveillance videos contradicted the officers’ stories, as the Reformer first reported.
Stallings noted he will have served more jail time than all the officers in the SWAT team combined. (He was jailed for five days before being bailed out by the Minnesota Freedom Fund.)
Stallings said prosecutors should send a message to the public that they take police brutality seriously by imposing more serious consequences.
“He’s not even walking away with a permanent felony,” Stallings said.
The Attorney General’s Office defended the plea agreement, saying they’re the only agency to hold anyone accountable in the case. Last spring, former Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman referred the case to the attorney general — having already unsuccessfully prosecuted Stallings. Freeman has said he erred in prosecuting Stallings, but deflected blame onto MPD officers, alleging they lied to prosecutors about the case.
Attorney General Keith Ellison attended Stetson’s court hearing, but declined to talk to reporters after. He later issued a statement calling Stetson’s admission of guilt historic, saying police officers rarely plead guilty to using excessive force.
Ellison said his office cannot right all the wrongs Stallings endured, or undo the “unjust trial” Stallings experienced, nor the days he spent in jail, but he hopes Stetson’s apology and inability to wear a badge again “serves as some measure of accountability to Mr. Stallings and to the community.”
Stallings’ attorney, Eric Rice, filed a brief saying the plea deal terms are far more lenient than most assault cases. The attorney general disagreed, saying state sentencing guidelines recommend a stayed sentence and probation for a first-time offender with no criminal history.
Stetson’s attorney, Fred Bruno, said federal prosecutors have agreed not to charge Stetson with criminal or civil rights violation in connection with the plea agreement.
Stallings said in his written objection to the deal that he was contacted by federal prosecutors after media reports about his acquittal, and met with an investigative team that promised to thoroughly look into the case. But some members of the team left for other positions, and he lost touch with them until one day, his attorney received an email saying the investigation was closed without any action.
After his acquittal, Stallings sued the city and won a $1.5 million settlement.
Stetson is the only officer who was charged in the case. The other officer who beat Stallings, Sgt. Andrew Bittell, has not been charged, even though body camera videos show he kneed and punched Stallings in the stomach, chest and back.
State records show Stetson took a disability retirement in August and receives a state pension of nearly $59,000 annually. Being charged with a crime will not affect his pension.
Stetson previously received a written reprimand for using force to take down a man near a cafe on Broadway Avenue in 2014 after police were called on a report of young Black men loitering and possibly selling drugs. He and another officer didn’t notify their supervisor that they used force, as required by MPD policy, and injured the man, whose eye was cut from hitting the sidewalk as Stetson took him down, according to internal affairs records.
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