Social media rumors fuel protest after St. Cloud police officer shot in hand

Two men standing.
St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson and St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis hold a news conference Monday, June 15.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Authorities say a St. Cloud police officer was shot in the hand early Monday while detaining an 18-year-old subject.

The officers didn't return fire. But rumors that police had killed a black man spread quickly, sparking a protest in front of the city's police station that led to property damage and arrests.

At a press conference Monday morning, city leaders pointed to the incident as an example of the importance of community policing, as well as the hazards of misinformation spread on social media.

The incident began shortly after midnight, when two St. Cloud police officers were investigating a report of a person with a firearm outside a business. When they tried to stop and detain an 18-year-old man, he fled on foot. 

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Two officers chased him and caught him on the 1000 block of 10th Avenue South. Police said a struggle began between the teen and officers, and the teen took out a handgun and fired, hitting an officer in the hand.

St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson said officers did not return fire. They subdued the teen and took him into custody, he said.

But rumors quickly began to circulate on social media that police had shot a black man, just days after a fatal shooting by police sparked unrest in Atlanta and as the country is still reeling with protests over the killing of George Floyd.

It didn't take long for a crowd of about a hundred people to assemble near the scene of the arrest.

Carl Jenson, who lives nearby, was among those who gathered to find out what had happened. He said after a few hours, people began marching from the south side of St. Cloud to downtown.

A building cordoned off with police tape.
The St. Cloud Police Department is cordoned off with police tape Monday, June 15, 2020.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

"There were a lot of people who started to pick up rocks and a lot of people in the crowd who weren't OK with that, and they were trying to tell them not to,” he said.

Chief Anderson said the group headed to the police station in downtown St. Cloud sometime after 3 a.m.

"We had information that when they arrived here, their intent was to damage property and take over our police station,” he said. “That didn’t happen."

Instead, officers barricaded the building, and dispersed the crowd using chemical irritants.

Anderson said protesters damaged some businesses and the police station. Police arrested four people for minor offenses, including unlawful assembly.

Members of St. Cloud's African American community appeared at the press conference with city leaders to praise the officers' restraint.

"The community is rightfully concerned, but there's no one dead here today,” said Rev. James Alberts, pastor of the Higher Ground Church of God in Christ in St Cloud. 

Alberts said the community has been working to build a relationship with the police for nearly two decades in anticipation of an event like this.

"I was not the only phone call that was made in the wee hours of the morning to reach out to the community,” he said. “I am thankful that our police department did not follow in some of the footsteps that we’ve seen around this country. It is possible to police and not kill."

The president of the St. Cloud chapter of the NAACP, Denise Fale, said people have the right to feel angry and to protest police killings.  But she said they also have the right to have the facts.

"The facts are the young man had a gun and ... the officer could have shot him, but he showed a tremendous amount of restraint,” Fale said. “The young man is alive today."

Police Chief Anderson was critical of social media's role in spreading misinformation about the incident, which he said could have escalated very quickly.

“It is abhorrent to me that within minutes the story that went out went out,” he said. “This place could have been on fire over a lie.”

Jenson said he feels better about the whole event knowing that police didn't actually shoot anyone. He called it an emotional reaction from people who, given recent events, assumed the worst.

"It is really unfortunate that basically what it seems to amount to is a rumor turned into a night of tear gas and some buildings being destroyed,” he said.

The suspect was taken to the hospital with a laceration and is in custody.

The name of the officer shot in the hand hasn't been released. Anderson said he's a 14-year veteran of the force. 

His injuries are not considered life-threatening. He was expected to have surgery today.