‘Expedite the process’: Records show City Hall pressured police to return confiscated guns during Minneapolis riots

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The Minnesota Freedom Fighters are hard to miss.

In the days following the deadly police shooting of Winston Smith in June 2021, members of the group patrolled Uptown wearing body armor and with rifles hanging off their shoulders.

They said they were armed and ready to protect peaceful protesters amid the chaos. They said they had permission from top officials at Minneapolis City Hall.

But the Minnesota Freedom Fighters don’t have a security contract with the city of Minneapolis.

In fact, the group isn’t licensed to provide security at all in Minnesota, according to state regulators.

Yet, after police confiscated firearms from several members of the group last year, police reports show officers were told to give the guns back as quickly as possible.

Sasha Cotton, the director of the Office of Violence Prevention, wanted to know “what the delays were,” according to police reports.

One officer noted that “direction was coming from the Mayor’s office to expedite the process.”

That officer also wrote that Deputy Chief Kathy Waite stated the Freedom Fighters “needed their guns to go to work.”

The records, which have not been previously reported, reveal new details about the fragile relationship between police, city hall, and armed community groups during the height of unrest in Minneapolis.

Several law enforcement experts interviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES say the records show an inappropriate level of political influence on criminal investigations.

In this 2021 case report, a Minneapolis police officer laid out how a firearms investigation was influenced by city hall.

Repeated requests to interview Mayor Jacob Frey were denied.

However, at a recent press conference, 5 INVESTIGATES asked Frey whether his office intervened in the investigation into members of the Freedom Fighters.

“Where guns were confiscated that shouldn’t have been… of course we want those guns given back,” Frey said. “I don’t recall giving any direction on it.”

The deputy chief later confirmed that the city was contacted by the Freedom Fighters for assistance in retrieving their property after criminal charges were declined for riot and weapons violations.

“I then spoke with the Mayor’s office and confirmed that our return process was in motion per standard protocol,” Waite said in a statement. “It is always in the best interests of the City and MPD to return property to the rightful and legal owners as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

But the records show officers expressed concern that some of those guns had been confiscated from people who did not legally own them, did not have permits to carry, or had criminal backgrounds that made them ineligible to possess a firearm.

“If you try to expedite the process and skip a step or two, then maybe suddenly you’re giving that back to somebody who doesn’t legally own it, or shouldn’t legally carry it,” said Pat Nelson, a professor at Mankato State University who also worked for MPD for 16 years.

Politically expedient

As rioters and looters overwhelmed the city in the days after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, records show officers were confused about which community groups were given authorization to be out after curfew.

“What’s your scope of authority? Who are you protecting? Why are you protecting them? And then has that been communicated to the peace officers in the area? And to me, it sounds like it wasn’t,” Nelson said.

In one instance, officers detained a man with a handgun who claimed he had permission from the mayor’s office to work security in the community.

The individual did not have a permit to carry and said it was his brother’s gun, according to an incident report from the Minnesota State Patrol.

A trooper noted later the man was a felon, which made it illegal for him to possess a firearm. 

The trooper also described another man with a rifle “dressed in a tactical type vest that appeared to be loaded with multiple magazines.”

Officers at the scene let both armed men go after two people arrived on scene “that identified themselves as being with the Mayor’s office,” according to records from the State Patrol and Minneapolis Police.

An MPD officer wrote in his report that it appeared to be the “politically expedient thing to do” given their actions were sanctioned by the city.

“It was a sergeant that wrote that who is caught in a maelstrom of politics,” Nelson said. “He knows that legally, this is probably not the right thing to do. But he’s caught within the fact that his boss, or his boss’s boss seems to have given these people permission.”

Special consideration

Several community groups were given curfew exemptions during the riots in 2020 and 2021.

However, a city spokesperson downplayed the relationship between city hall and armed groups like the Freedom Fighters.

“These are informal relationships,” Sarah McKenzie said in an email. “We have always made it clear that the City cannot fund armed groups. However, having knowledge of who is working to prevent violence in the community, paid or unpaid, armed or unarmed, is a responsibility of our office.”

The Freedom Fighters were not granted a formal curfew exemption, according to the city.

After multiple attempts to reach the Freedom Fighters, a member of the group responded on Thursday, but did not comment on the police records.

But the records indicate armed members of the group received special consideration from city hall after police confiscated their firearms last year.

Deputy Chief Waite requested an update specifically for the Mayor on the return of the firearms.

An officer wrote in his report that he “complied with this order and did a variety of things to speed up the process as much as I could.”

The officer who wrote this incident report described how there was direction to return guns to the Freedom Fighters in 2021 because the group needed them for security work. The Freedom Fighters are not licensed to provide security in Minnesota.

Larry Gaines, a criminology professor at California State University, San Bernardino, said the records show an inappropriate level of political influence.

“Let the police officers do their job,” he said.

Marc Buslik, a former commander with Chicago Police, said bad things can happen when politicians get involved in police investigations.

“That’s the risk of that sort of political influence that they have trickles down to that level.”

Professor Nelson, a former MPD sergeant, said she knows the officer who documented many of the concerns.

“You can hear the frustration in just his tone in his report about being caught in a political maelstrom,” she said. “There was no good way out for him on that and he documented what he could.”