The BCA has a history of protecting police who kill

After Thurman “Jun” Blevins was killed by Minneapolis police last Saturday, witnesses on the scene stated that he had been running away when shot. Police claim that he presented an imminent threat. The BCA says a gun was recovered at the scene. The Minneapolis NAACP and other organizations have called for the immediate release of the body camera video footage to establish the circumstances surrounding yet another fatal shooting of a black man by Minnesota officers.

Although the BCA says it is “fully committed to a fair, impartial, and thorough investigation of the incident that led to the death of Thurman Junior Blevins,” community activists are skeptical of the BCA and have called for a truly independent outside investigation. (A state-level Special Prosecutor’s Office should be established to conduct investigations and prosecutions of police shootings, with the community helping to pick the Chief Prosecutor.) This skepticism and mistrust is due to the manner in which the BCA has helped excuse other police shootings. One example is the 2014 fatal shooting of Dawn Pfister, where the BCA
  • falsely stated that Pfister was advancing on officers with a knife  
  • failed to even look at full dash cam videos before interviewing officers
  • publicly released only excerpts of dash cam videos 
As a result, no charges were brought and the officer remained on the force. After the family’s attorney obtained the full videos showing Pfister was no threat, in 2017 Chaska agreed to a $1.75 million settlement.

On February 7, 2014, Chaska police chased driver Michael Serbus and his passenger and girlfriend Dawn Pfister along US 212 after a hit-and-run report. After Serbus crashed, he appeared to threaten Pfister with a knife (“looks to be a hostage situation”), prompting police to shoot him (“He’s trying to stab her… I gotta drop him, guys”) and the pair went down. Then Pfister took the knife from Serbus and started to get up, an action described by her family as an attempt to escape her hostage taker. 

Officer Juell shot and killed her, while 10 other officers held their fire. Juell claimed “she started comin’ up at us with that knife and I, I knew right then and there she’s gonna try and kill us with that knife.” A Hennepin County grand jury declined to charge the officers, and Chaska not only retained Juell as an officer but actually awarded him a distinguished service medal months before settling.

As described by Juell, Pfister was an armed suspect who presented an imminent threat, leaving him no choice but to shoot. That also seems to be the view adopted by the BCA. Attorney Bob Bennett described how BCA Special Agent-in-Charge Scott Mueller told the medical examiner on site that Pfister “ran over to Serbus, grabbed the knife and then began advancing toward officers with it.” But while the BCA released dashcam videos showing up to when police initially fired, Bennett obtained and released the full unredacted videos, and from this evidence he calls Mueller’s statement a “complete fabrication.” Indeed, the full videos make it clear that Pfister was not aggressing the officers when Juell unaccountably killed her – this is presumably why Chaska agreed to the large settlement.  

Incredibly, in a deposition by Bennett the BCA admits they did not view the videos prior to interviewing Juell, and when Bennett asks “so basically you take these officers’ statements about what they perceived at complete face value?” the answer given is “yes.” Bennett summarized his experiences in the case: “I've certainly learned you cannot reliably trust the BCA to investigate officer involved shootings or other conduct impartially.”

That view is widely shared within the community. Distrust that the BCA (and Hennepin County) will hold officers accountable has only grown after the 2015 shooting of unarmed Jamar Clark - Clark, like Pfister, was described by police as an imminent threat (despite witness statements establishing otherwise); Clark’s killing, like Pfister’s, was “investigated” in a biased manner by the BCA, and the unnecessary death of Clark, like the unnecessary death of Pfister, was excused by Hennepin County.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has promised that body camera videos from the officers who killed Thurman Blevins will be released after the BCA finishes interviewing witnesses. This important concession must be attributed primarily to the ongoing pressure from activists in this and previous cases. But it is not enough to ask the BCA to release the videos in some form – we saw with Dawn Pfister how the BCA redacted out evidence that the shooting was unnecessary.

The entire body camera videos from the Blevins incident, unredacted (except where the family wishes it), and all associated evidence including the 911 calls and dashcam videos, must be released to provide full transparency. We must know how the officers approached Blevins, why they chose to open fire, whether they rendered aid. Meanwhile, selective leaking by pro-police sources to establish a narrative is unacceptable.

According to Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll, the officers who shot Blevins reviewed their body camera footage prior to speaking with the BCA. As activists have pointed out repeatedly, and as the BCA itself has acknowledged, this damages the evidentiary value of these statements from the officers because they could tailor their narrative to match the video.

State law needs to prohibit the viewing by involved officers of body camera or other video from critical incidents, not leave it up to local jurisdiction as is the current policy. And state law should mandate the BCA to release all relevant video and other evidence immediately after conducting interviews in all future shootings by police. It is time to abandon the pretense that the BCA withholds evidence to protect investigations, and admit that this history of the BCA suggests instead that their “investigations” protect officers who kill.