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Former police officer admits to felony assault on Black man after George Floyd murder

Jaleel Stallings said he fired at officers in self-defense — and after he surrendered, he was badly beaten. A former officer pleaded guilty to a felony charge in the case on Wednesday.
Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via AP
Jaleel Stallings said he fired at officers in self-defense — and after he surrendered, he was badly beaten. A former officer pleaded guilty to a felony charge in the case on Wednesday.

In 2020, Jaleel Stallings was charged with attempted murder after shooting at police officers in Minneapolis during protests over George Floyd's death. At the time, Stallings has said, he assumed his life was over.

But a jury believed Stallings when he said he fired in self-defense and that the officers had assaulted him — and police body camera and surveillance videos bolstered Stallings' account, and undermined the official version of events.

Now one of those officers has admitted his own guilt in court and apologized to Stallings.

What just happened

Former Minneapolis police officer Justin Stetson pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a felony assault charge and a gross misdemeanor charge of misconduct of a public officer or employee. In court, the white officer said he "crossed the line" on May 30, 2020, when he repeatedly kicked and hit Stallings, who is Black.

With the admission, Stetson will not be able to work in law enforcement in Minnesota again. But Stallings has criticized the plea deal, saying it doesn't go far enough to hold Stetson accountable and prevent similar behavior.

Prosecutors say they won't seek prison time for Stetson when he is sentenced in August; instead, they want him to undergo two years of supervised probation.

"As the innocent victim in this case, I will have served more jail time as a result of this incident than all of those officers combined," Stallings said as he objected to the plea deal, the Minnesota Reformer news outlet reported.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison acknowledged the ordeal Stallings was forced to endure, as well as what he called an "unjust" trial and time in jail. But he also said Stetson's acknowledgement of wrongdoing is historic.

"Rarely if ever do police officers plead guilty to using excessive force in the line of duty — and today, Stetson has admitted he did so under color of his official authority, in violation of the law," Ellison said in a statement sent to NPR.

In his plea, Stetson acknowledged participating in "a harmful institutional culture of policing in the Minneapolis Police Department," the attorney general's office said.

The backstory

Five days after Floyd was killed by former police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020, Minneapolis police SWAT team officers set out in an unmarked white van, ostensibly to enforce a curfew. Led by Sgt. Andrew Bittell, Stetson and other officers fired 40 mm "less-lethal" foam-tipped rounds at people out of the van's open side door without warning, Minnesota Public Radio has reported.

When officers shot at four people in a parking lot on Lake Street, they hit Stallings — an Army veteran who was then in his late 20s — in the chest.

"I thought I had been shot with a real bullet and was bleeding out," Stallings later said. Believing the group to be civilians, he used his own gun to fire toward the van — and it wasn't until he heard them yell, "Shots fired!" Stallings said, that he realized he had fired at the police.

Stallings tried to surrender, tossing his weapon away and placing himself face-down on the ground with his hands out, as shown in body camera and surveillance video from the scene.

But Stetson repeatedly kicked Stallings in the face and head and shouted profanities, despite not issuing any initial commands. The criminal complaint says Stetson also punched Stallings and delivered "five knee strikes" to his face.

Stallings suffered a fractured eye socket and other injuries.

"Three days later, Hennepin County prosecutors charged him with eight felonies, including two counts of attempted murder of police officers," MPR reported.

"I felt like my life was over," Stallings later said. "Regardless of the fact that I felt like I didn't do anything wrong, I didn't feel like I was in the wrong at all. From experience, what I've seen is Black men don't make it out of situations like that."

But Stallings rejected a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for years, and a jury found him not guilty after the official narrative unraveled in the face of video from the scene. He then sued the city and more than a dozen police officers in federal court. Last May, Minneapolis agreed to pay him $1.5 million.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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