Minneapolis poised to give $145k settlement to MPD officer involved in beating
Sgt. Andrew Bittell led a SWAT team that rode around shooting plastic bullets at curfew violators
A Minneapolis police SWAT team exits a police van at Hennepin Ave and 31st Street in the early morning hours of April 12, 2021, during reports of looting following the killing of Daunte Wright hours earlier. Photo by Chad Davis.
The city of Minneapolis is poised to pay $145,000 to a SWAT team leader whose unit drove around in an unmarked van firing plastic bullets at people without warning five days after the police murder of George Floyd. They wound up severely beating two men after one of them fired back in self-defense.
Sgt. Andrew Bittell was one of two police officers who 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, and was acquitted by a jury of eight charges, including two counts of attempted murder.
A Minneapolis City Council committee will be asked Monday to settle Bittell’s workers’ compensation claim — as it has for dozens of other cops — along with others, totaling over $1 million. In the two years following Floyd’s murder, 144 MPD officers were awarded workers’ compensation settlements totaling over $22.2 million.
Additional settlements have continued to wind through city hall, with a pro forma stop at the City Council for approval. Even though some council members have expressed consternation over the constant stream of six-figure settlements — some to cops with lengthy disciplinary records — they say the City Attorney’s Office has advised them settling the cases is cheaper than going to trial.
In addition to the workers’ comp settlements, many of the officers are retiring early due to disability, most of them citing post-traumatic stress disorder. As of June 2022, the state was paying more than $875,000 per month in disability pension payments to 169 former MPD cops, 80% of them citing PTSD. Public safety employees who retire early due to a disability can get paid 60% of their salary tax-free until age 55, when it converts to a regular retirement.
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.
Bittell turned to his SWAT unit and said, “Alright, we’re rolling down Lake Street. The first f***ers we see, we’re just hammering ’em with 40s,” he said, as shown on body camera footage. He was referring to so-called less lethal 40mm launchers or rounds sometimes referred to as plastic bullets.
At 17th Avenue and Lake Street, Bittell urged the SWAT team to shoot, without warning, at a group of people outside the Stop-N-Shop gas station. They shot at the gas station owner, neighbors and relatives guarding the station from more looting, as well as bystanders, including a Vice News reporter who had his hands up and was yelling, “Press!” A SWAT team member pushed the reporter to the ground, and as he lay there, with his press card raised, another officer pepper sprayed him in the face.
About an hour later, three blocks to the west, they opened the sliding door of the van and began firing at a few people standing in a parking lot.
They hit Stallings, a St. Paul truck driver and Army veteran, who later told jurors he thought he’d been hit with real bullets. Stallings said he didn’t know they were cops because they were inside a white van with the police lights off. He feared they were white supremacists roaming the city, as the governor warned they might be. Stallings told the jury he fired back, purposely missing to try to scare them off.
When the SWAT team jumped out of the van yelling, “Shots fired!” Stallings dropped his weapon and lay face down on the pavement.
Bittell kneed and punched Stallings in the stomach, chest and back while another officer, Justin Stetson, punched and kicked Stallings in the head, neck, stomach, chest and back. Midway through the beating, Stetson told Stallings to put his arms behind his back, and after handcuffing him, Bittell sat him up and kicked him in the ribs as Stetson continued hitting him in the head.
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 a deal with the state attorney general in which he pleaded guilty to felony assault and misdemeanor misconduct, although the felony will be dismissed if he completes two years of supervised probation.
Body camera footage shows the officers’ accounts to investigators were inaccurate and sometimes conflicted with each other.
During a debriefing after Stallings was arrested, Bittell neglected to tell a responding officer the SWAT unit fired first, and implied Stallings shot at the van unprovoked.
“He shot at us,” Bittell said, according to bodycam videos. “Then he gave up.”
The other officers agreed, saying they didn’t “shoot” at Stallings. During a later court hearing, the officers said they meant that they didn’t shoot at him with live ammunition from a lethal weapon.
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.”
He also acknowledged his unit enjoyed the work.
“I think that the guys were trying to make as much sense of it as they could and sometimes enjoyment and laughter is a coping mechanism so, yes, you’re correct, they did enjoy it,” he testified.
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.”
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