Cop Actually Admits He Was Wrong To Brutalize A Man Who Thought He Was Being Assaulted By Criminals

from the cop-with-a-conscience dept

I don’t often highlight the things that cops do right. That’s for several reasons. First, I don’t think it’s worth applauding officers for managing to do their jobs without violating anyone’s rights. Second, I don’t think it’s cute when cops pull over people to give them Thanksgiving turkeys or aid and abet marriage proposals. That’s just hideous. And third, cops generally don’t go above and beyond too often, so there’s a limited amount of content to work with.

But I am going to highlight this because it’s so far out of the ordinary as to be noteworthy. Here’s Deena Winter with the details for the Minnesota Reformer:

“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.”

This is indeed out of the ordinary. Not only did the officer admit he was wrong, he admitted the department he worked for — as well as cop culture in general — was part of the problem. It’s the latter admission that’s more astounding: that it’s an institutional problem, rather than just a few “bad apples.”

The former officer was one of several Minneapolis PD officers who assaulted Jaleel Stallings while roaming the street in an unmarked van, casually popping off non-lethal rounds at anyone they happened to see on the streets during protests that erupted in the city following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

They hit Jaleel K. Stallings, 29, a St. Paul truck driver, who says he didn’t know they were cops because they were inside an unmarked white cargo van with the police lights off. He thought they were real bullets. And, he says he was mindful of warnings earlier that day from no less than Gov. Tim Walz that white supremacists were roaming the city looking for trouble.

Stallings was not only brutalized by cops but charged with second-degree murder, first-degree assault, and second-degree riot. He fired off one round well over the top of the unmarked van. For that act of self-defense, he was beaten, even though he dropped his gun and laid facedown on the ground as soon as he realized they were police officers. For his innocent mistake, he was brutalized and jailed until a prosecutor — having viewed the officers’ body cams — dropped the charges that could have netted Stalling more than decade in prison.

The city of Minneapolis was not nearly as apologetic when it settled Stallings’ civil rights lawsuit for $1.5 million. The payout came coupled with the city’s refusal to admit guilt or take any responsibility for its officers’ actions on that night.

Now, as remarkable as former officer Stetson’s admission and apology are, there are several caveats that detract from its power.

The first is the settlement above, which has already absolved the city and the PD of any wrongdoing. It may be an implicit expression of guilt, but it’s not an explicit admission, which is what matters when it comes to holding the city and PD accountable in the future.

Then there’s the effect this admission has on the officer himself. His admission came with a plea deal on lesser charges, meaning that — no matter how sincere his statement might be — this rare admission of guilt was in the officer’s best interests.

The officer, who testified he beat Stallings so severely he wondered whether he had broken his own hand, pleaded to lesser charges to ensure he won’t face any jail time. That plea deal came coupled with some other stipulations, which also detract from the impact of his apology.

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.

Being blocked from further law enforcement employment in Minnesota likely contributed to this admission of guilt. If he had an opportunity to return to the force, it’s unlikely Officer Stetson would have thrown himself and his employer under the proverbial bus while awaiting sentencing. Even if the court had not stipulated his ousting from state law enforcement work, his statement would have assured his inability to secure a law enforcement job.

Finally, there’s the point made by Stallings — the victim of this officer’s assault and the recipient of a $1.5 million settlement from the city:

Stallings noted he will have served more jail time than all the officers in the SWAT team combined. 

That undercuts all of this. The only actually innocent person in this incident is the only person who spent any time in jail. There is no deterrent to officers like the belatedly regretful Stetson. And that means officers will continue to behave carelessly and casually violate rights because the odds of them actually being held personally accountable for their actions hovers near zero percent. It’s the policed that pay, not only in terms of the violence inflicted on them, but for the defense of those who engaged in this violence.

Thanks for the nice words, former Officer Stetson. But until we start hearing this more often and from officers not trying to dodge jail time, they’re almost as worthless as the pixels they’re printed on.

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