Year-old Minnesota BCA unit under fresh scrutiny

·7 min read

Winston Smith' Jr.'s killing by members of a federal task force in Minneapolis last month is prompting fresh scrutiny of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, along with its newly formed unit dedicated to investigating violent or deadly police encounters and other misconduct.

The latest investigation lies with the year-old Force Investigations Unit, specifically dedicated to decreasing law enforcement violence. The unit has 23 staffers, including a special agent in charge, two assistant special agents, 13 senior special agents, two criminal intelligence analysts and a victim, family and community relations coordinator.

"I want everyone in Minnesota to know we have a strong commitment to continually improve," BCA Superintendent Drew Evans said in an interview last week from his office in St. Paul. "People cannot feel good about an outcome, but I want people to have trust in our process."

Evans said he's committed to hiring agents of the highest character, experience and expertise, "the best of the best." But the relatively new FIU is just getting started with two years of funding. It's future and efficacy remain an open question to critics who would rather see entirely independent oversight of law enforcement.

The FIU grew out of a working group convened in mid-2019 by Attorney General Keith Ellison and Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington. In late February 2020, the group issued 28 recommendations including the creation of "an independent, specialized unit within the BCA to investigate all officer-involved shootings and uses of force that result in death or severe bodily injury."

Chanda Smith Baker, chief impact officer and senior vice president at the Minneapolis Foundation, was a member of the group who heard testimony and discussed ideas for months. She said the issue of whether to create the FIU was an intense debate and a hard-won victory.

"This recommendation may not feel like it's gone far enough from a community standpoint, but it's a step in the right direction," Smith Baker said. "At the end of the day we do need the best investigators coming in and we do need them to be free from conflict."

The FIU was created by law on Aug. 1, 2020. Since then, the unit has handled 54 cases, 28 of them involving the use of deadly force by law enforcement. Another 19 involved allegations of sexual assault by law enforcement and seven were conflict-of-interest investigations, involving possible misconduct by a public official.

At the BCA headquarters, to emphasize its unique status, the FIU offices were set up near Evans' office, separated by an airy atrium from most BCA.

Before the FIU was created, BCA homicide investigators would handle the cases. Now the FIU investigators are focused on their own cases that they take when local jurisdictions ask them to do so. The BCA has taken some of the highest profile cases in recent years both before and after the creation of the FIU.

The BCA was called to the scene in July 2017 when then-Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, when George Floyd was murdered by then officer Derek Chauvin in May of 2020, and in November 2015 when Minneapolis police fatally shot a handcuffed Jamar Clark. The agency was called to the scene in July 2016 when St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot Philando Castile after a traffic stop in Falcon Heights.

In recent months, the FIU investigated the deadly April shooting of Daunte Wright by then-Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter, the fatal shooting of Smith by unidentified sheriff's deputies in an Uptown parking garage and the shooting death earlier this month of Ricardo Torres Jr. by Olivia police officer Aaron Clouse.

So far in 2021, the BCA has been asked to investigate 15 incidents involving deadly force. In 2020, the BCA investigated 27.

Nekima Levy Armstrong, a Minneapolis civil rights attorney and activist, wants a greater divide between the those who investigate and prosecute civilians and police. She wants the state to create a special prosecutor's office to singularly focus on the police.

She sees a problem with the pending Smith investigation and believes that placing the FIU in the BCA was a "bad idea" because of inherent conflicts and lack of credibility.

"The conflicts of interest are glaring," she said. "The BCA was not founded with the intention of investigating police misconduct," she said. "It's unclear whether they were ever set up to investigate these cases."

In Smith's case, the unidentified Hennepin and Ramsey County sheriff's deputies who shot him were working under the auspices of the U.S. Marshals Service led by Mona Dohman, the former commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety who elevated Evans to superintendent of the BCA in 2015.

In response, a BCA spokesman said Evans current DPS Commissioner John Harrington, not the U.S. marshal.

'Competing interests'

When the call comes into the FIU, local law enforcement is directed to secure the scene and wait, not touching possible evidence.

Upon arrival, BCA investigators will take a quick "public safety statement" from officers at the scene about injuries and weapons.

The officer who used force will be isolated from the others. An uninvolved officer will watch over the officer with the directive to not discuss the incident, Evans said.

At some point FIU investigators will read a "criminal investigation warning" to the involved officer, making clear the agents are conducting a criminal investigation and that any statement by the officer is voluntary. Evans said it's rare for the officers to speak to investigators and officers cannot be compelled to provide statements.

FIU investigators will gather video from nearby cameras and talk to witnesses. The mobile crime lab crew will arrive to photograph the scene and collect physical evidence.

The BCA's victim, family and community relations coordinator, Biiftuu Adam, will be there as well, speaking to the victim's friends or family. She was hired in March 2020, another recommendation that came from the working group more than a year ago.

Evans said the agency tries to complete investigations within 60 days. "That being said, it's much more important to get them right than done in a particular time frame," Evans said.

He understands the frustration of waiting for information, a tension that often surfaces when it comes to public demand for the release of footage from the body-worn cameras of police officers. Evans said the decision to release footage rests with local authorities but must be balanced with investigative needs.

"We encourage police agencies to do what's in the public interest," he said. "In an officer involved shooting, there's competing interests: the integrity of the investigation and community trust."

Evans said the goal of the BCA investigation is "simply to get to the truth of what occurred."

Once completed, the BCA hands over its investigative report, but does not make a recommendation. Prosecutors then have three choices: File a complaint, decline to file charges or put the question to a grand jury.

Evans disputed the notion that there's overwhelming mistrust of police or the BCA.

"I think there's a lot of trust in law enforcement," he said. "There's challenged communities; that's part of what this (FIU) is about. ... We hear loud and clear there's areas to improve."

Smith Baker said she's been impressed with how quickly the Evans and the BCA moved on the recommendation to create the FIU.

"I came in pretty skeptical," she said. "I gained confidence in the way that he was approaching the work."

Earlier this month, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman asked the agency to review the 2013 killing of Terrance Franklin by Minneapolis police officers in a south Minneapolis basement after new evidence came to light. Previously, MPD investigated the case internally. BCA spokesman Bruce Gordon said "We are currently evaluating what our involvement in the case would be, if any."

In response, Levy Armstrong said: "The BCA has not responded because, again, they have no real interest in ensuring justice."

Evans said he's aware the process can be frustrating for citizens who want information and he's pushing to be open as much as possible and demystifying the work.

"We want to be transparent so that all of the public can examine our case workday in and day out," he said. "If we believe there's a way to build greater trust, we're always willing to do that as an institution."

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

Twitter: @rochelleolson

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