Minneapolis police chief defends actions in fatal shooting

Fong Lee
Nineteen-year-old Fong Lee was shot to death by Minneapolis police officers in 2006, after they say he threatened them with a gun. Lee's family claims Lee was unarmed and that police planted the gun after the fact.
Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Police Department

Minneapolis officials are usually quite reluctant to say anything about a lawsuit against the city and its police force. But Police Chief Tim Dolan recently broke that tradition by speaking directly to allegations made by lawyers for Fong Lee's family.

Lee family lawyers say the teenager was unarmed when he was shot by Minneapolis police officer Jason Andersen in 2006. They believe a gun found next to Lee's body was planted in order to justify the shooting.

Lawyers partially base this contention on the testimony of young men who were with Lee just before the shooting. They say Lee did not have a gun.

Police Chief Dolan doesn't believe them.

"I don't know why you're going to believe some kids that are out there, obviously, not up to much good, over two officers that are just doing their job in trying to protect the people on the northside," Dolan said.

The Lee family points to security camera footage which shows Lee running away from officer Andersen just before he is shot. They say the footage shows Lee doesn't have anything in either hand.

Dolan says that's disputable. He adds that rest of the video also doesn't show an officer planting a gun.

"There's a video that shows that basically nobody approached that body before a third officer arrived," Dolan said. "And that's the crux of the evidence. This gun was not in our custody. The Grand Jury found that these officers acted appropriately and federal court is going to find the same."

Dolan says the state trooper who was riding with officer Andersen, trooper Craig Benz, also saw a gun in Fong Lee's hand before they gave chase.

The gun Andersen and Benz say they saw, was thought to be held in the department's property and evidence unit until the shooting.

But last week the city filed documents containing the testimony of police employees who say the gun found next to Lee's body, was never in police custody. They say the gun was originally misidentified by an officer who confused it with another similar weapon.

"If the police department is suppose to signify Minneapolis' best and brightest, then we're all in trouble because they're sure admitting to a lot of mistakes," said Lee family attorney Rich Hechter. "Especially the one officer who claimed he had trouble converting metric into other measurements in trying to analyze a gun which just seems ludicrous and ridiculous."

Hechter says just because the property room didn't report that they had the gun before Lee's shooting, doesn't mean an officer didn't drop it at the scene.

But he says the real crux of the case isn't whether an officer planted a gun on Lee. Hechter says the main point is that he believes officer Andersen shot an unarmed man.

"So the whole issue is whether officer Andersen even had justification to start shooting and unloading bullets at this kid," he said. "And again, if he's starting to shoot when the kid clearly has no gun in his hand, that's a huge constitutional violation mounting to wrongful death and unjustified shooting."

Hechter adds, the gun found at the scene had no fingerprints or DNA evidence on it.

The case is scheduled to go to a settlement conference on May 11 in front of Magistrate Judge Janie Mayerson.

If no settlement is reached, the case goes to trial in U.S. District Court a week later.

Rich Hechter says Fong Lee's family will settle for justice - meaning they want the city to admit Lee had no gun and clear his name.

Police Chief Tim Dolan says he wouldn't be surprised if the case "didn't make it to trial."

Last week, Minneapolis settled a discrimination suit with five African American police officers for nearly $750,000.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Chief Dolan's comments regarding the trial. This version is an accurate representation of his comments.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.