It took more than a month for Minnesota law enforcement officials to release videos proving that a black man killed while fleeing police had indeed had a gun and seemed to be turning it on officers when they opened fire.
The release of the videos last week was meant to extinguish partially misinformed outrage and swirling rumors in Thurman Blevins’ north-side neighborhood that he had been unarmed when he was killed. As with another recent police killing of an armed man in Chicago, officials seemed to hope that body camera footage showing a gun in hand would end the story.
But it’s all far from over, thanks to a gross mishandling of the public release of investigative information coupled with the announcement, last Monday, that Officers Justin Schmidt and Ryan Kelly would face no charges for killing Blevins. For several hours after Blevins’ family members had angrily overtaken a press conference announcing the no-charges decision, law enforcement officials directed reporters and the public to an almost entirely unredacted version of the casefile.
The erroneous release was eventually corrected. But not before reporters — and anyone else with a laptop and a bit of free time — had a chance to download thousands of pages of material that includes names, addresses, and phone numbers from civilian witnesses and sworn law enforcement personnel alike.
The release also included full copies of all material on Blevins’ cell phone, as well as the work phones of officers Schmidt and Kelly. One freelancing reporter with a tech background was even able to figure out the home address of the officers, though they have not been published and the story was not released until Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension officials had been given a chance to correct the screw-up.
The grave mistakes were made — either by BCA or by partners at the Hennepin County Attorney’s office that had consulted with the agency before deciding not to bring charges — in the name of a good cause. Transparency, even radical transparency, was certainly warranted by the time the agencies came around to releasing the videos, transcripts, and forensics information from the case. By then, friends and family had become convinced that there was a cover-up going on, that Blevins had had no gun.
He did. The videos make that plain. They also suggest that Schmidt only opened fire, roughly 40 seconds into a foot pursuit, after Blevins took his pistol out of his right hip pocket and began to twist his body as though to look back at the officers.
But what the videos also show is a second rhyming couplet to last month’s killing of Harith “Snoop” Augustus in Chicago. In each case, police are calling the public’s attention to the proof that the dead man put his hand on his gun, but declining to address more complicated questions about their officers’ conduct prior to that moment.
Unlike in Augustus’ case, Blevins had no license for his gun. Text messages from his phone indicate he had been looking to buy a gun in the days before he was killed after feeling “naked” without one for some days previous. Augustus was a licensed firearm owner who was killed after police blindsided him as he was trying to show one of their colleagues his gun card. Blevins’ story is far, far messier – and much farther from complete.
The officers who encountered Blevins on June 23 were responding to a 911 report that someone had let off two shots from a handgun – one into the air, another into the ground, neither aimed at people or property according to the 911 caller – in a residential neighborhood.
The body camera footage shows that they happened onto Blevins as he sat on a curb, talking to a woman who was pushing a baby in a stroller. The officers hopped out guns leveled and screaming at him to freeze and put his gun down, and Blevins – who officers had been told might be drunk – took off running with a bottle of liquor in one hand.
Less than a minute later, he was dead in a nearby alley. For hours afterward, dozens of cops flooded the area to conduct interviews and hold back a large and agitated crowd that had been told the guy was unarmed and pleading for his life when he was killed.
The latter claim was true. The former was not. But still, Blevins’ family and friends are left to wonder, couldn’t it all have gone differently if police had taken a different approach from the start?
A dangerous job
Law enforcement officials tend to bristle at any suggestion that officers should be expected to take on increased personal risk by opening an encounter with an armed person in a de-escalation mode. Police academies and educational programs emphasize the importance of command presence over almost everything else. Police officers should have a right to come home safe at night like anyone else, the argument goes – and a call for service like the one Schmidt and Kelly were responding to that afternoon must therefore be treated as a potential shooting fight from jump, lest the subject gain a lethal advantage on the uniformed public servants.
That thinking freeze-dries out some of the nuances of a situation like this one. Dispatch was clear that the man in question had reportedly fired one shot into the air and another into the ground. The 911 caller specified that the guy hadn’t been shooting at anyone. At the crucial moment of arrival, Schmidt immediately calls out that he can see Blevins’ gun, which is visible in his pocket in the early frames of the stabilized version of the videos.
But the hardline command-presence approach, initiating contact with shouting and guns leveled, forecloses other options available to police in such situations. And because of the misinformation that had taken root in the community during the weeks between Blevins’ killing and the release of the videos and other materials, law enforcement have understandably focused their attention on the other critical moment in the videos, when Blevins can be seen to have pulled the gun from his pocket and begun twisting his body. To a cop in a foot chase, that combination of actions mandates opening fire. To the prosecutors and investigators scrutinizing the high-profile killing, those actions mean there is no criminal case to be made against the officers.
That decision is doubtless correct according to the laws that govern potential prosecution of officers over their on-duty conduct. The legal standards are so restrictive that even officers like Jeronimo Yanez, the killer of Philando Castile, routinely end up acquitted by juries despite relatively strong evidence that their actions were inappropriate and potentially illegal. However understandable the family’s outrage, there was not a viable route to prosecution given the scenes that body cameras captured in that alley.
But attention should still return to how Schmidt and Kelly chose to operate at the outset of the encounter, and to the training and policies that govern officers’ opening gambits when answering a “person with gun” call. The gun was not the only thing they would have observed as they drove up to that corner. They would also have seen a man sitting next to a baby in a stroller, a woman with both hands on the handles. They would also have seen that the gun was not in Blevins’ hand but rather in his pocket. They might easily have decided to keep rolling up the block slowly, call in the precise location, and allow additional officers to arrive and encircle the man. They might even have exited their car calmly, holsters unbuttoned and hands on their gun butts, and ask the man, woman, and child what was going on.
“Might,” here, does not mean “should.” Law enforcement is a profession, its practitioners better suited to understand what it is like to actually do the job. Phil Stinson, a former cop turned leading academic expert on criminal investigations and prosecutions into police officer conduct, stressed the particulars of the information Schmidt and Kelly had from dispatchers – and from their own observations on arrival.
“You’ve got to take it back a few minutes before that. They were dispatched for a call for service that someone had called 911 about a black male in a tanktop shooting off a handgun,” he said. “They’re treating this as an in-progress emergency.”
Asking officers in that situation to employ de-escalation tools rather than the command-and-control aggression we all now expect of officers in active-shooter situations may seem easy in hindsight, Stinson said, but in the moment it would have been absurd.
“What they knew is they had a drunk guy with a gun, and he’s firing it, and somebody’s concerned enough to call the police. What if they get out and decide they’re going to play patsy with him, and now the baby’s in the line of fire? There’s a no-win situation here for the police officers,” he said. “Policing and street encounters are fast paced, they’re ugly. They’re not in a classroom.”
Stinson is free to engage these questions in a way that local law enforcement officers aren’t. As the body camera videos put to rest the falsehoods, partial truths, grief, and rage that’s consumed the North Minneapolis enclave where Blevins lived since his death, surviving family members are beginning to raise these same questions.
“It was the way that they approached him when they came out of the vehicle,” Darlynn Blevins, Thurman’s sister, said to local reporters days after the announcement there would be no charges against Schmidt or Kelly. “I mean, who else is not going to run if somebody is behind me telling me ‘I’m going to shoot you, I’m going to kill you.’”
The department’s written policies on use of force offer no direct clarity on how – if at all – officers are encouraged to differentiate between reports of someone shooting at people versus someone letting off rounds into the air. Minneapolis Police Department spokesman John Elder refused to discuss the department’s use of force policies even in the abstract for fear of tainting the department’s own ongoing internal review of the killing. As written, those policies do not include specific guidance on how officers might blend their hard-power responsibilities in addressing an armed citizen with their soft-power training on de-escalation and other departmental acknowledgments that an officer’s mode of behavior greatly influences how a citizen behaves in response.
“Farmer Johnson” and community policing
Both the moment when Blevins’ actions in the alley prompt officers to fire and the earlier moment of initial encounter also evoke some of the basics of the perennial call for greater emphasis on “community policing.”
That catch-all phrase, as invoked since the latter half of the 20th century, is meant to address the difference between the old-timey cop-on-the-beat who is familiar with the neighborhood he patrols, and the more isolated, distant, and tense relationships between modern cops and larger cities. One former police chief in the Midwest who spoke to ThinkProgress contrasted the experience of responding to a call of some unknown guy letting off shots in public to a hypothetical small-town analog.
“Let’s say it’s a small-town police department in Anywhere, USA, and the dispatcher says ‘Hey it’s Farmer Johnson over at the end of Creek Road shooting off his shotgun again.’ That’s a whole different ballgame,” the former chief said. “That’s why a lot of cities are trying to do community outreach, have officers walk a beat, get to know the community and get to know the people in it.”
Minneapolis has adopted policies that emphasize that kind of personal touch and community familiarity from its police officers. Personnel files for the two men released by MPD include details that provide a loose sketch of their separate approaches to their work, evoking a sort of Watson-and-Holmes duo where one man prioritized investigative skills, the other physical skills, and each gained a reputation for being talented, diligent policemen who saved lives and solved cases. Kelly’s records indicate that he focused most of his required annual “continuing education” classwork and training on gun and tactical courses tied to the city’s SWAT unit, where Schmidt’s mix of classes included no SWAT time at all and more investigative, community relations, and database systems training than extra time boning up on firearms. Each man had attended a training course on implicit bias, but Schmidt had also sought out three units of coursework on “procedural justice,” a category of training focused on how treating civilians respectfully breeds better law enforcement results for everyone.
Officer Schmidt had received praise from supervisors for his conduct representing the department at community meetings, the personnel records show. But it’s unclear if he ever would have showed face and shaken hands at such an event in the poorer, blacker North Minneapolis enclave where he and Kelly encountered Blevins that day.
“I am sorry but we do not keep track of what community events officers attend as it is so fluid due to call volume,” said Elder, the MPD spokesman. The only community-meetings note in Schmidt’s file that includes a specific location took place in Lowry Hill East. Lowry Hill East is roughly 70 percent white and boasts significantly higher median incomes and housing values — and a much more central location to the city’s core — than the majority-minority neighborhood where Blevins was killed.
Both men’s commendations records report multiple awards and formal citations for doing effective policework, though Schmidt’s list is both longer and more reflective of a man who’d been praised by citizens for his civil and rational conduct toward them as well as for being a savvy investigator of crimes.
In one instance, a citizen who watched Schmidt and a partner deal with a tense crowd who accused them of racial profiling took the time to call MPD to commend the officers for their professionalism and civility. Another entry in his file commends his work as a bike cop helping to keep streets clear around a large immigration protest downtown.
But whatever commendations he’s earned for community engagement, one text recovered from Schmidt’s work phone seems to indicate he privately holds the those who protest police violence in low esteem. The night protesters took to the streets in outrage at Yanez being found not guilty of murdering Castile, Schmidt apparently got word that marchers were turning their focus on the neighborhood where his girlfriend lived.
“Those assclowns are going to the governors [sic] mansion which means they’ll be near the house. Make sure all the doors and windows are closed and locked. If anyone is in the yard, call 911 right away,” Schmidt wrote.
Blevins didn’t have Farmer Johnson’s shotgun. He had a 9 milimeter Smith & Wesson SD9VE. The unredacted report initially released by investigators connects the gun to four other police cases in three Minnesota jurisdictions, including two in neighboring St. Paul. Police reports obtained by ThinkProgress on those St. Paul cases indicate that officers had recovered a gun and multiple shell casings at a crime scene in early 2017. Ballistics reports from that weapon and those casings were not immediately available, but police sources stressed that the likeliest interpretation of those facts is simply that the casings there had come from multiple guns and that not all of the guns in question were recovered by officers.
The screw-ups in the public information handling leave dozens of other investigative questions. How did Blevins get his gun? Had he in fact been the one who fired the two shots that prompted the 911 call? Who else might have been present in the moments just before Officers Schmidt and Kelly arrived, as at least one witness report from the unredacted documents puts a second man on the same street corner just minutes beforehand?
But the biggest question of all isn’t a hard-facts investigative one. It’s a broad and ugly tumor rotting away at the social contract between cops and citizens. If talking to police even about a killing that’s legally justified still gets your name and testimony leaked out into public, how can anyone entrust their safety to those same authorities?