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Minneapolis leaders mishandled response to protests after George Floyd’s killing, new report finds

Riot police advance in Minneapolis in May 2020. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

MINNEAPOLIS — Nearly two years after the police killing of George Floyd ignited fiery unrest in Minneapolis, a long-awaited report offered a scathing indictment of the city’s response, suggesting the chaotic situation was made worse by a mayor who disregarded emergency protocols and a police department whose officers failed to follow “consistent rules of engagement.”

The 86-page report conducted for the city of Minneapolis by the Chicago-based security risk firm Hillard Heintze listed a litany of communications and leadership failures by Mayor Jacob Frey (D) and other city officials that left residents feeling “abandoned” and fueled chaos on the ground amid days of escalating violence and destruction.

The report’s authors, including several former law enforcement officials, said police on the front lines operated without clear guidance or supervision as they fired tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds, including peaceful protesters — an aggressive tactic that critics say further escalated tensions, helping fuel violence and looting across the city.

The report said some of those tactics appeared to violate policy, based on the firm’s review of extensive body-camera footage from the scene. But it also said many officers weren’t properly trained and had not been given a clear mission or directives from the city’s police chief or other senior leaders on how to deal with the increasingly volatile protests.

“We found there was a vast, vast void in consistent rules of engagement or control … when you can and can’t use that weapon, when you should and shouldn’t,” Chad McGinty, an author of the report and former operations commander for the Ohio State Highway Patrol, told members of the Minneapolis City Council on Tuesday.

The report said Minneapolis had “well written” and “comprehensive” emergency operations plans in place, pointing to the city’s handling of major security events including the 2008 Republican National Convention and the 2018 Super Bowl. The firm also pointed the city’s extensive experience in responding to other large protests.

But according to the report, Frey “did not ensure the appropriate implementation” of those emergency plans, and he and Medaria Arradondo, who was then the city’s police chief, “did not effectively” work with the city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to stand up a unified command and response center that could have improved coordination and taken the lead on requests for help from other law enforcement agencies across the state.

The report says that the Minneapolis Police Department eventually set up a command post but that staffers from the OEM were not involved, in part because staffers at the police command post were not adhering to coronavirus precautions “such as wearing masks” during a precarious time in the pandemic.

The firm says this lack of coordination added to communication missteps and delays, including with the deployment of the Minnesota National Guard into the city. While Frey asked Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) to deploy troops into the city on the night of May 27, Walz did not formally activate the National Guard until 24 hours later, prompting finger-pointing between city and state officials.

Though a spokeswoman said Frey was interviewed for the report, its authors were unable to fully clarify the circumstances of that dispute. They speculated that a lack of specifics about the Guard’s mission probably contributed to the delay but could not “definitively say.” Still, the report suggested Frey and Arradondo should have asked the OEM for help, because it had more experience.

“Had the Mayor or the MPD consulted the OEM, the OEM could have assisted with a more detailed request and potentially minimized the delay in deployment,” the report said.

In a statement, Frey acknowledged the failures laid out in the report and said he was working with city agencies to create a plan to implement the more than two dozen recommendations, including the strengthening of the city’s emergency protocols and improved police training on crowd control.

“Rebuilding trust between community and local government relies on us taking concrete actions informed by this review,” Frey said in the statement.

In a statement issued along with Frey’s, Amelia Huffman, the city’s acting police chief, acknowledged the “deep pain” in the community caused by Floyd’s killing and the “city’s actions during the unrest that followed.” Huffman said the department was committed to “examining our policies and training to ensure they reflect best practices” and reaffirmed the department’s commitment to collaborate with city agencies and respect the First Amendment rights of protesters.

The report raised questions about how seriously the city and police department took the protests in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s killing and how prepared the city might be for future unrest.

Unnamed Minneapolis police officers — among the 90 people, including government officials, city staffers and community members, interviewed for the report — told the firm their impression during the first two days of protests was that “MPD leadership, and presumably the City, attempted to keep the incident low profile and did not request additional resources,” the report says, despite clear indications the situation was growing more tense.

The report says that top MPD leadership and command staff did not formally meet until the afternoon of May 27 — two days after Floyd’s killing — and that “no plan or definitive actions were provided or discussed,” despite clashes between protesters and police the night before.

“Several senior-level MPD leadership personnel acknowledged that they did not have a plan,” the report says, quoting unnamed staffers who said the department’s approach was to allow the response to proceed “organically.” That prompted chaos on the ground among officers who told the report’s authors they were not sure who was in charge or what they were supposed to be doing.

“Officers lost faith and trust in leadership,” the report says.

Pressed Tuesday by the City Council on whether he felt Minneapolis officers broke the “chain of command” during the days of unrest, McGinty replied, “Yes.” McGinty quickly added that he was not sure whether “broken” was the right word. “There was a void. There was absolutely a void,” McGinty said.

The report says police first used chemical munitions on May 26 to disperse an angry crowd outside the city’s 3rd Precinct, the police station where Derek Chauvin and the three other officers charged in Floyd’s killing worked. Arradondo had given permission for officers to use chemical munitions, but the report’s authors said they could not discern from body-camera footage whether officers had asked the crowd to disperse before firing.

The body-camera footage appeared to show officers firing “blast balls,” rubber 40-millimeter munitions that can be used only with permission, because of the risk of injury, the report says. But the authors noted they could only speculate, because the officers broke policy by not documenting their use of munitions as the department requires.

“We could not accurately account for the type of munitions used, due in large part to the lack of accountability and supervisory oversight for munitions and officer deployment, leaving the question of the early use of any impact rounds unanswered,” they wrote.

The report cites a New England Journal of Medicine article that documented at least 45 people who were seriously injured during the Minneapolis unrest by less-lethal munitions fired by the police — including 16 people who suffered traumatic brain injuries when they were hit by projectiles. The city of Minneapolis is the subject of numerous lawsuits filed by the injured and last month proposed a $2.4 million settlement to a man who was blinded in one eye when he was hit by a rubber bullet.

Floyd’s killing by a White police officer sparked a national reckoning on issues of race and social justice and fueled what some have described as the largest documented demonstrations in history, with people from coast to coast taking to the streets to demand justice.

That uprising led to violent clashes between protesters and police all over the country, prompting fresh questions about policing practices and training that led most major American cities to conduct after-action reviews of their response to the widespread civil unrest.

Minneapolis, where that reckoning began, was one of the last major cities to release its after-action report on the Floyd-related protests. The City Council hired Hillard Heintze in February 2021, paying the firm nearly $230,000 to conduct a year-long review of the city’s response — effectively delaying the report until after the city’s municipal elections, in which Frey and the entire City Council were on the ballot.

A draft report was given to the city on Feb. 3, a day after Amir Locke was fatally shot by a Minneapolis SWAT team officer during a predawn, no-knock raid. The closely guarded report was made public during the council meeting Tuesday, with some members complaining they had not been given full access to firm’s findings.

The report comes as tensions in the city remain high. Prosecutors, including Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D), are still determining whether charges will be filed against the police officer who fatally shot Locke. Meanwhile, Frey has been under criticism for claiming during his election last year that he had banned no-knock warrants in the city, even though police were still using them.

At the same time, state and federal investigators are still looking at the police department’s training and practices, which also attracted an unflattering spotlight during the recent federal civil rights trial of the three former officers found guilty of failing to intervene with Chauvin and render aid to save Floyd’s life. The former officers — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao — presented testified about the department’s training and culture.

On Sunday, Frey announced the city had retained a firm to conduct a national search for a new police chief to replace Arradondo, who retired in January. That search comes as the city is struggling to replace roughly 300 police officers who have quit the Minneapolis force since Floyd’s killing — many citing post-traumatic stress disorder — leaving the department struggling to respond to 911 calls as the city endures a dramatic uptick in violent crime.

On Tuesday, several council members — many of them elected in November during a campaign season driven by the debate over public safety and the future of the policing — pointed to residents’ continuing trauma over Floyd’s death, triggered again amid continued tensions with police over Locke’s killing.

“There is trauma, there is pain, and a lot of questions about what we will do next,” said Jason Chavez, a newly elected council member who represents the South Minneapolis area where Floyd was killed. “What we do next is what’s going to matter the most.”