‘The precinct is on fire’: What happened at Minneapolis’ 3rd Precinct — and what it means

Protesters gesture after the Minneapolis police 3rd Precinct
Protesters gesture after the Minneapolis police 3rd Precinct building was set on fire May 28, 2020, during demonstrations over the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Carlos Gonzalez | Star Tribune via AP file

This story comes from APM Reports, the documentary and investigative unit of American Public Media. MPR News and APM Reports are both part of American Public Media Group.

It was 9:53 p.m. when a Minneapolis police officer sent out an urgent call to the other officers who remained in the 3rd Precinct.

“We need to move. We need to move,” he shouted over the police radio.  

Protesters were breaking into the back of the station, and officers were preparing to take an unprecedented step in American policing: to abandon their precinct building. 

“The front has been breached,” an officer called over the radio just before they fled. “They’re coming in. They’re coming in the back.”

In a dramatic exit, a squad car rammed through a gate near the station in south Minneapolis, leading a motorcade racing from the parking lot. Patrol officers in riot gear left on foot, hurrying past a jeering crowd hurling rocks and fireworks.

The flight of officers from the police station on May 28 was days in the making.

George Floyd had been killed three days earlier — on Memorial Day — while being violently detained by officers at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. Veteran officer Derek Chauvin had knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes. Chauvin, it would later be revealed, was serving as a training officer despite a record that included 17 public complaints against him.

Two other officers helped Chauvin keep Floyd pinned to the street while another watched as Floyd, who was already handcuffed, gasped for help, pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, called for his mother, and then lost consciousness. 

In the days following Floyd’s death, as outrage spread across the Twin Cities and the nation, hundreds of protesters converged on the 3rd Precinct, where the four officers had worked. 

For many protesters, the station had become a symbol not only of the department’s failure to hold abusive officers accountable — for example, all but one of the 17 complaints against Chauvin had been dismissed — but also the deteriorating relationship between the police and the community they were hired to protect.

Aggressive police tactics over the years, often used against Black residents, and controversial shootings by officers had bred deep distrust of the police. Floyd’s death unleashed a wave of outrage.

In response, police made two controversial decisions:

  • They initially focused on defending the 3rd Precinct building, which critics say left the rest of the neighborhood largely unprotected against a few looters and arsonists among the protesters. Dozens of buildings were burned and damage has been estimated at least in the tens of millions of dollars.

  • And when protests were still largely peaceful in the first days following Floyd’s death, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd outside the precinct, an action that protesters and city leaders say escalated an already volatile situation.

As protests around the precinct became more violent, several City Council members urged the mayor and police chief to surrender the building, believing that the traditional police tactics — to hold the building at all costs — were further angering the public.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo eventually decided that having officers stand their ground wasn’t worth the potential loss of life. If abandoning the station meant rewriting the tactical playbook for American policing, so be it, Frey said. 

It was such a departure from the norm that national policing experts say it will likely be studied for years to come. 

Over the past month, APM Reports and MPR News interviewed city leaders, police officers and people who were there the night the precinct was abandoned. Reporters also reviewed public records and police transmissions to reconstruct events and understand more clearly what happened and why — and what it means. 

Once the decision was made, the evacuation wasn’t smooth. Officers didn’t receive an official order through the department’s chain of command. Instead, the decision to leave spread largely by word of mouth, officers said. That led to a hasty escape.

Television images in the final hours were striking: a few officers standing atop the station under siege, then withdrawing as protesters stormed the building.  

It was a moment that seemed to symbolize the breakdown of order in Minneapolis, and the failure of the relationship between the Police Department and the community. It was a moment that would come to represent not just resistance to police abuses but perhaps a new approach to handling such protests. 

After officers escaped the station, they safely regrouped a few blocks away. Then a call came over the police radio that would have once seemed unimaginable: “The precinct is on fire.”

‘It looked like they were defending the Alamo’

By the evening of May 26 — nearly 24 hours after Floyd was killed and after a video of what happened had ricocheted around the world — a vigil was organized at the site of his death. Hundreds gathered there to mourn and protest. Just before dusk, they marched more than 2 miles north to the 3rd Precinct, calling for charges against the officers. 

Buildings near the 3rd Precinct that sustained damage
Buildings near the 3rd Precinct sustained damage throughout the week as police officers defended their station from protesters but did little to protect the surrounding neighborhood. The businesses marked here were either damaged during the protests or are owned by people who witnessed the events of the week firsthand.
Will Craft | APM Reports

Some business owners near the precinct began to brace for the worst. But Kelly Drummer, who runs Migizi, a nonprofit that supports Native American youth one block away from the precinct, said the protests were peaceful.

“There really weren’t any concerns that first evening on behalf of the businesses,” she said.

The police station was another story. On that first evening of protests, demonstrators hurled rocks and bottles at the building. Some people breached the gate protecting the parking lot and started smashing police car windows. Police Chief Arradondo told reporters that officers kept guns in some of those cars. The chief said he was worried protesters might take the weapons, so he gave the order to use tear gas and rubber bullets to push protesters away from the station.  

The next day, officers continued to use those weapons against demonstrators. Many protesters viewed the police response as an overreaction that exacerbated the crowd’s anger. 

Activist Robin Wonsley said the police made things worse because that level of force was too much. Her friend, a peaceful protester, was rushed to the hospital after being hit in the head with a rubber bullet.

“Your building is getting hit with rocks,” she said. “How do you think that’s an equitable response?”

On the second night of protests, Wednesday, May 27, the standoff at the precinct escalated. People started breaking into and looting nearby businesses, including a Target and a liquor store. Then they started setting fires in buildings up and down the block. 

City Council member Andrew Johnson blames the police for much of the destruction. The only thing they seemed to be protecting, he said, was their own building.

“It looked like they were defending the Alamo and letting the community burn,” he said.

Council member Jeremiah Ellison, during a live interview with MPR News from the protests that night, called for police to “sacrifice” the station.

“Take out everything important or dangerous,” he said. “And you say, ‘Look, we’re not going to stand with our really scary-looking rifles and face masks and act like we’re in opposition to a group of people who, as of last night, were scared and righteously angry.’”

Seven miles away, in southwest Minneapolis, Council member Linea Palmisano was at home with her family. She was watching the looting of Target and the burning of buildings on television when her phone rang. It was city coordinator Mark Ruff, the top appointed official in Minneapolis.

“You can’t let the 3rd Precinct go,” she recalls telling him. “That would just be the epitome of ultimate chaos in our city.”

Planning a retreat

While city leaders debated if abandoning the precinct would make things better or worse, a section of south Minneapolis burned. 

Between 9 p.m. on Wednesday, May 27, and 7 a.m. on Thursday, May 28, the Minneapolis Fire Department responded to 16 fires within blocks of the 3rd Precinct. 

With the neighborhood smoldering, city officials were desperate to restore peace.

In a Thursday morning press conference, Frey announced he was leading “an all-out effort to restore peace and security.” That included requesting help from the National Guard.

Few people knew that he and Arradondo had already been preparing for the possibility of evacuating the 3rd Precinct. 

Frey said it had become clear Wednesday night that Minneapolis didn’t have enough officers to handle the protests, and it would take time for the National Guard to mobilize. In the meantime, city leaders discussed ways to deescalate the situation.

Frey said there was no clear plan to abandon the precinct, though for much of Thursday, he and the police chief discussed potentially surrendering the station if the violence got bad enough. They decided they needed to prepare for that contingency.  

As local business owners made their way through the neighborhood early Thursday to inspect the damage from the night before, word was filtering down to police officers to clear out their lockers at the station. 

“I thought, initially, it was a joke,” officer Richard Walker said. He rushed to the station just past noon and stuffed everything from his locker into a trash bag. “I never thought that we would give up a precinct.”

Meanwhile, business owners were dreading what the night ahead would bring. 

Josh Voeltz, co-owner of Arbeiter Brewing, a few doors down from the precinct, noticed on Thursday afternoon that the police station parking lot was empty, and he realized that the rumors of a retreat were likely true.

“[That] was kind of when it clicked,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh, so they are going to try to burn this thing tonight.’” He made a mental note of the wind direction and feared his business might catch fire, too.

Drummer had stayed at Migizi most of Wednesday night to stave off vandalism. While she empathized with demonstrators’ anger, she had felt some relief that officers pushed protesters farther away from the 3rd Precinct. But she was losing confidence that the police could continue to protect the Migizi building. She called for help from the American Indian Movement safety patrol, an ad-hoc group created, in part, in response to police brutality against the local Native American community in the late 1960s. 

At 4 p.m., Gov. Tim Walz activated the National Guard.

It would take guard troops a couple of days to fully mobilize, and they would have little presence in the city on Thursday. But Drummer was relieved by the news, which she got through the tribal liaison in the governor’s office. If the National Guard might be out, even if the police were gone, Migizi would be safe, she thought.

“We just had faith,” she said.

The fire and the aftermath

On Thursday afternoon, as another night of protests approached, Frey and Arradondo took several steps that they hoped would de-escalate the growing confrontation in the city. They had prepared to surrender the precinct, if necessary, and they had reduced the street presence of Minneapolis’ officers.

At first, it seemed like the de-escalation was working. 

“Made it to the precinct. Energy is very chill, casual right now,” Rachel Bean tweeted just before 6:30 p.m. as she joined the demonstrators who were grilling, listening to music and socializing. “I think it might have something to do with almost zero visible police here.”

Two hours later, police reported over the scanner that the crowd was “engaged in peaceful activity.”

But there was trouble ahead. 

As darkness fell, more people began to gather outside the station, and the crowd was growing restless. 

At 8:49 p.m. a distress call went out over the scanner: “They’re breaching the gates. They are throwing stuff at our cops.” Officers were authorized to use rubber ball grenades and rubber bullets as necessary. 

“We're holding the line as best we can,” an officer called over the airwaves. Officers who were still inside the station and on the roof were warned to put on their gas masks. “Just so you know,” they were told over the scanner, “our front door is fully breached. If they throw anything in, and it’s an explosive, it would explode.”

When officers are under attack, the typical tactic has long called for responding with force, said Sid Heal, a retired police commander and expert in police emergency operations. 

“We will tell you to stay away. We will tell you to knock it off if you’re throwing things,” said Heal, who helped oversee the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s response to riots in the 1990s. “But at some point in time, it’s going to get real, and it’s not going to look like what you believe police officers should be doing on TV.”

But city leaders had decided they couldn’t sanction that level of violence. As Frey would later argue, a building can be rebuilt, lives can’t.

“We were faced with a decision,” the mayor said. “If people continued to enter the building, hand-to-hand combat was almost definite. Serious bodily injury was likely, and death was possible. And faced with a decision between protecting a brick and mortar structure on the one hand, and protecting life — both of the officers as well as the general public — on the other, I’m protecting life.”

After another 45 minutes, officers were running low on ammunition. With protesters breaking into the station, the evacuation route was established, and officers prepared to leave. 

Soon after, the station was overrun by demonstrators, and, as the crowd cheered, it was set ablaze.

As flames leapt from the windows of the building, a dispatcher reported over the radio: “Protesters were seen running out of the 3rd Precinct with police jackets and riot gear on.”

The 3rd Precinct building, built in 1985, was declared officially lost.

With protesters surrounding the building, firefighters couldn’t reach the station, and it was left to burn through the night. 

Early Friday morning, firefighters sprayed the rooftop, extinguishing what was left of the fire. In their report, they noted “Extensive fire, smoke and water damage” to the building. Four people have so far been charged with breaking into the station and setting it on fire.

Those who advocated for sacrificing the precinct hoped that it would cool tensions. They were wrong. 

Friday night was even worse, even though that was the day the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office charged Chauvin with murder. 

“It did nothing to quell anything,” Sgt. Sherral Schmidt, a leader of the police union, said of abandoning the station.

Frey said that he can’t know if the outcome would have been different had he acted sooner or tried another strategy. “But, clearly, the murder of George Floyd has sparked a whole lot of anger and sadness,” he said. 

That night and the next, 75 fires were reported around the city. 

Damage has been estimated at half a billion dollars. That includes Migizi. Drummer said the American Indian Movement activists protected Migizi while the 3rd Precinct burned. But rumors of a ruptured gas line and a possible explosion forced them to leave. Eventually, cinders from nearby fires ignited the roof. Firefighters couldn’t reach the burning building until early the next morning, and the Migizi building was later declared a total loss.  

Heal, the retired Los Angeles officer, says he had to go back to 1863 to find another example of officers surrendering a police precinct.

“This is indubitably going to be a very studied action in law enforcement,” he said. 

So, Minneapolis was the first in modern memory. But it wasn’t the last. Two weeks later, the Seattle mayor ordered officers to withdraw from a precinct there. It is one of many ways American cities are rethinking the role of police following the death of George Floyd.

The image of the burning precinct served as a beacon that something different was happening in Minneapolis, that the reaction to Floyd’s killing — from protesters and elected officials — was different than the reactions to previous deaths in police custody. For activists, the station’s demise was momentous. To them, a symbol of police brutality and oppression had been burned to the ground.

It wasn’t until Saturday night when the National Guard was fully mobilized that the unrest subsided and the protests returned to the way they were when they started: largely peaceful. 

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