JUSTIFYING THE FORCE: Initial description of George Floyd’s death fits larger pattern at MPD

JUSTIFYING THE FORCE: Initial description of George Floyd’s death fits larger pattern at MPD

JUSTIFYING THE FORCE: Initial description of George Floyd's death fits larger pattern at MPD

In one of the largest excessive force settlements ever paid out by the city of Minneapolis, two police officers were accused of concocting lies and engaging in a cover-up after shooting a man seven times. Federal court records show their testimony was ultimately discredited by forensic experts, a federal judge and even their own medical expert.

Those officers claimed they kept firing at Dominic Felder as he resisted arrest in June 2006 because he grabbed one of their guns and continued to cling to it while he was on his back.

Felder, who had been suffering a mental episode that night, died from his wounds and his family filed a wrongful death lawsuit.

The trial ended with a jury verdict against the city, a $2.1 million settlement and the startling revelation that the police officers’ justification for using deadly force was built on a foundation of misleading and faulty testimony.

D’Azhane Felder-Johnson, who was 8 years old when her father was killed, says the evidence presented in court more than a decade ago is just as maddening today.

“This is a thing that has been happening forever, not just with my dad, but historically,” Felder-Johnson, now 22, said in a recent interview.

The testimonies given by the officers who shot Felder were uncovered as part of a 5 INVESTIGATES analysis of excessive force cases involving the Minneapolis Police Department over the past 20 years.

Court documents, as well as video evidence, reveal a pattern in which the initial description of an officers’ use of force was later shown to be misleading or inaccurate, including most recently in the death of George Floyd.

The night Floyd died in police custody, Minneapolis police held a press conference and described his death, which has since been deemed a homicide, as a “medical incident.”

That narrative was shattered within hours after cellphone video surfaced showing an officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes as witnesses pleaded for someone to check his pulse.

It is still unclear why the original description of Floyd’s death was so radically different from what was later revealed in that video.

Bob Bennett, an attorney who has sued the department dozens of times and secured millions of dollars in settlements, says that initial statement “was meant to diffuse things and instead helped ignite them,” a reference to the international protests and riots that followed.

‘Blue wall of silence’

Minneapolis in particular, according to Bennett, has a problem with excessive force and “the tolerance of it.”

Internal investigative records are historically difficult to obtain from Minneapolis police.

Even if an officer has been disciplined—the legal standard in Minnesota for most records to be deemed public—it can take more than a year, depending on the scope of the request, for records to be reviewed, redacted and released.

However, civil rights lawsuits filed against Minneapolis police officers in federal court offer a glimpse into how some officers justify their use of force.

5 INVESTIGATES analyzed nearly 100 settlements approved by the city involving allegations of excessive force dating back to the early 2000s.

In roughly one out of every four settlements, an officer was accused in court of falsifying a police report, omitting key details or failing to report their use of force altogether.

“That’s what they’ve done historically,” Bennett said. “It would just be sort of a blue wall of silence. One would lie and the other would swear to it.”

Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who has spoken openly since Floyd’s death about the need to reform the culture of the department, declined to be interviewed for this story.

In an email, a police spokesperson wrote, “due to the subject matter being part of an investigation, we will be unable to participate in an interview.”

Robert Fowler, a labor attorney who represents police officers across the state, says inaccurate details or missing information in reports does not mean an officer is trying to hide from their use of force.

“It’s not that it’s an ‘Ah-ha moment, we’ve got an officer lying,’ it’s very difficult to recall in those circumstances,” Fowler said. “Police officers are human and their recollection can differ just like any witness.”

Adrenaline can also affect an officer’s recollection, according to Fowler, which is why he prefers to have an officer wait until at least the next day before giving a statement.

“After the officers have had some rest and a familiar environment to process that adrenaline out, the statements are far better and accurate,” he said.

But in at least half a dozen cases, 5 INVESTIGATES found the officers stuck to their version of events until they were directly contradicted by either video evidence, expert testimony or a judge’s ruling — leading to millions of dollars in settlements.

In Felder’s case, a retired FBI agent went as far as accusing officers Jason King and Lawrence Loonsfoot of lying and engaging in a police “cover-up,” according to a sworn affidavit that has not previously been reported.

“I do not know how this shooting occurred, but I can state with absolute professional certainty… that it did not happen the way Officers King and Loonsoot claim it did,” Fred Robinette, who was hired by an attorney representing Felder’s family, said in the affidavit.

“Both King and Loonsfoot have concocted false statements and perjured testimony to effect a cover-up of what may well be a wrongful death at the hands of these officers.”

Judge James Rosenbaum wrote in one court order that “six of seven shots fired into Felder do not facially match the officers’ testimony.”

A medical examiner brought in by the city’s legal team also conceded that the majority of the “gunshot wounds are inconsistent” with the officers’ description of the shooting; however, claimed that the inconsistencies in their testimony was not perjury but rather due to the level of chaos that they had experienced.

Despite the judge’s ruling, expert testimony, jury verdict and a then-record settlement, media reports at the time show an internal affairs investigation determined the officers’ use of deadly force was justified.

Employment records show they continued to work for the department for several years after the shooting.

5 INVESTIGATES was unable to contact Loonsfoot for comment in this story.

Reached by phone, King responded, “Shut up, this ain’t going to happen, don’t ever call me again.”

Felder’s daughter says their unreliable testimony should not be blamed on adrenaline or chaos.

“That’s how police operate,” she said. “They take lives and then lie on the victim.”

Video ‘doesn’t lie’

As in Floyd’s death, video has told a different story than what was initially described by police in several of the cases reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES.

In 2008, the city paid out $26,000 to a man who was punched in the mouth while handcuffed. The officers justified their force by saying the man was “struggling” and “could not be controlled,” claims not supported by a neighbor’s video of the arrest.

In 2010, a man was paid nearly $20,000 after he was taken down, punched and shot with a Taser during a traffic stop for a broken brake light. Not only did the officers fail to report the use of the Taser in their initial report, according to the civil complaint, but dash camera video later revealed both brake lights appeared to be working.

After an officer hit a woman with his squad car in 2013, he claimed he could not stop due to frosty road conditions.

However, after reviewing the dash camera video, a judge found the officer never hit the brakes and that the video clearly showed he turned the car in the woman’s direction “immediately before striking her.”

The city paid $105,000 to settle that lawsuit.

In one of the most egregious examples, a judge found two officers conducted an illegal strip search after they bent Recardo Meeks over the trunk of their squad car, pulled his pants down to his knees and inspected his exposed buttocks for drugs.

While officers David O’Connor and Daniel Anderson reported seizing a small amount of marijuana during the traffic stop, they failed to disclose how they found it.

The city paid $76,000 to settle the case in 2009 after an investigator with the city’s civil rights department uncovered surveillance video that captured the entire search, according to details found in court records that have not been previously reported.

The investigator, Stephen McKean, later testified that the video showed there were “obvious things that were not true” about the officers’ story.

Asked in court proceedings at the time why the officers would omit such key information, McKean responded, “One reason would be because they didn’t want to fully explain their entire actions if they knew that those actions…violated somebody’s rights.”

Anderson left the department in 2014. He did not respond to messages seeking comment. O’Connor is still employed as a police officer in the city. Messages left with his union, the Minneapolis Police Federation, were not returned. Internal affairs records related to the incident have not yet been released.

RELATED: Minneapolis City Council votes to eliminate public information officer position with MPD

Andrew Scott, a former police chief in Florida with more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, says their failure to report the search is an “outright lie by omission.”

“That’s not just a minor oversight, that’s a major omission,” he added.

Scott says video is the best physical evidence because it does not lie under any circumstances.

“Humans lie,” Scott said. “Some are concerned about getting in trouble so they build a narrative around the situation to help support why they did what they did.”

‘Record, call…yell out’

Weeks after the cellphone video of Floyd’s death sparked wide-ranging calls for police reform, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo urged the public to keep recording and reporting officers’ use of force.

“Record, call…yell out,” he said at a press conference in June. “The community plays a vital role.”

Yet, a review of court records shows officers in Minneapolis have also been accused of trying to stop the public from doing just that.

One officer, Tyrone Barze, was repeatedly accused of taking cellphones from witnesses who were trying to record him.

Barze is still employed as a police officer in Minneapolis. The police federation did not respond to messages seeking comment from Barze. His disciplinary records have not yet been provided.

“He was a phone get ridder,” said Bennett, who negotiated multiple settlements with the city over Barze’s use of force. “He’d break your phone, step on your phone, take your phone. He didn’t like people recording.”

Officers have even shut off their own cameras while investigating or responding to deadly police shootings.

One of the first officers who showed up to the north Minneapolis apartment complex where Jamar Clark was shot and killed in 2015, later told state investigators that she turned off her dash camera as she arrived on scene, according to investigative records reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES. She offered no explanation as to why she stopped recording video of a chaotic scene that included dozens of potential witnesses.

Two years later, a supervisor repeatedly turned off her body camera while investigating the scene in south Minneapolis where Officer Mohammed Noor shot and killed Justine Damond.

During the trial that would ultimately lead to Noor’s conviction, Sgt. Shannon Barnette denied hiding any information, but prosecutors cited it as an example of police interfering with an investigation into one of their own.

After the video evidence was released last year, 5 INVESTIGATES asked whether Barnette was ever disciplined. A department spokesperson would only say the entire investigation was under review. The department has still not provided any records or details about that review.

Felder-Johnson says the pattern documented in court records since her father’s death only reaffirms her attitude toward police in Minneapolis.

“There needs to be a change, there needs to be accountability,” Felder-Johnson said. “There needs to be truth.”

Investigative Reporter Ryan Raiche can be reached via email here or by phone at 651-642-4544. Investigative Producer Joe Augustine can be reached via email here or by phone at 651-642-4524.