Report: Mpls. police, fire failed to follow emergency plans during 2020 unrest

Seen from Hiawatha Avenue, a large fire burns
A large fire burns May 28, 2020 in Minneapolis.
David Joles | Star Tribune via AP

Updated: 3:38 p.m.

A long-awaited review of how Minneapolis public safety officials responded to the 2020 riots found the police and fire departments neglected their own emergency plans and never set up an adequate command structure. That neglect led to poor communication with officers and firefighters on the streets and inconsistent decision making, the report concluded.

As arsonists set fires around Minneapolis in the days after the police murder of George Floyd, firefighters became increasingly concerned that crowds would attack them. Supervisors trying to pull the crews off the street had to resort to a phone tree because they couldn’t get into a password-protected communication system, according to one of the review’s findings.

The City Council approved a nearly $230,000 contract with Hillard Heintze, based in Chicago, more than a year ago to produce what its authors, most of them law enforcement veterans, call an “after action” report.

The firm’s staff reviewed several thousand documents and more than 30 hours of body camera footage. They also interviewed dozens of people, including city leaders and staff, as well as police and fire department officials.

Robert Boehmer, who managed the project for Hillard Heintze, told the city council Tuesday that common themes emerged in conversations with residents and business owners. They viewed former chief Medaria Arradondo positively, but not the department.

“They were frustrated by the lack of preparedness, the lack of leadership, and the failure to assist business owners, especially small business owners after the unrest,” Boehmer said.

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Chad McGinty, also with the consulting firm, said the city had emergency operations plans in place, but leaders did not follow them, nor did they develop a plan for this specific incident.

“They could see that this was going to have an impact on the community, but they didn’t engage in formal planning. They didn’t take opportunities to look forward and put plans in place,” McGinty said.

The Minneapolis Police Department set up a command post, but McGinty said the lack of planning meant the MPD did not designate a specific incident commander, or assign people to other leadership roles.

Officers on the street reported that they received little guidance about what to do, and intelligence briefings weren’t circulated in the field. In particular, the report cites a “low level of accountability” regarding the use of 40mm chemical and foam rounds referred to in law enforcement lingo as “less lethal.”

The reviewers were unable to find any records showing who was carrying and using the launchers, or how many were fired. MPD policy requires a use-of-force review any time an officer shoots a 40mm round, but the consultants found none.

The report also cites a New England Journal of Medicine article published last year that identified 45 people who reported suffering injuries from projectiles. The after-action review did not mention that at least four people suffered permanent eye damage — including partial blindness.

Last week, a federal judge approved a $2.4 million settlement for a man who lost an eye to a police projectile while standing in a crowd of peaceful protesters before the 8 p.m. curfew. Other lawsuits are pending.

The review also said city leaders were unfamiliar with the process for requesting help from the Minnesota National Guard. Mayor Jacob Frey made a verbal request to Gov. Tim Walz about 48 hours after Floyd’s killing, then followed up with a written request. But McGinty said the guard didn’t have the details required by policy.

“The information that’s required by the Guard that’s required to activate personnel, to put them into a civilian situation such as what was occurring in Minneapolis, the information simply wasn’t there on the first day the request was made.”

Walz said the upheaval demonstrated the importance of emergency management planning and training exercises.

City coordinator Heather Johnson said the Office of Emergency Management is developing a plan to implement the report’s 27 recommendations. The office is expected to report back to the council in a month, and provide quarterly updates.

Minnesota’s Public Safety Department will release its own report on the state response to civil disturbances that followed Floyd’s 2020 death in a few weeks. Commissioner John Harrington expects it to recommend stronger collaboration before emergencies.

“We will have lessons learned especially around incorporating fire response,” he said. “That was one of those areas where we hadn’t been as quick to pull the trigger on. We have learned since then that is one of my first calls for service whenever we have a disruption to have fire online and at the table.”

MPR News reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this story.