By Greg Hollis
A former Minnesota police officer pleaded guilty on Wednesday, May 10 to assaulting a Black man five days after George Floyd was killed in 2020.
Justin Stetson, an ex-officer, pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony assault charge and a misdemeanor charge of misconduct of a public officer or employee. The felony assault charge has a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.
The misdemeanor charge has a maximum sentence of one year and a $3,000 fine. Stetson was the only officer charged, and the guilty plea ensures he can’t work in law enforcement in Minnesota again.
On May 30, 2020, Jaleel Stallings suffered a brutal attack by Stetson and other officers during a protest over George Floyd’s death. Minneapolis was under curfew, and Stetson was part of a SWAT unit that set out in an unmarked van to enforce a nighttime curfew.
Stetson and other officers — led by Sgt. Andrew Bittell, according to Minnesota Public Radio — fired 40 mm foam-tipped rubber bullets without warning at people spotted on the street past the curfew as they worked to protect local businesses from looting.
Stallings and three other men were shot at while sitting in a parking lot. He was hit in the chest and returned three shots back at the van with real bullets. No officer was hit when Stallings returned fire. The Army veteran also had a permit to carry the gun.
“I thought I had been shot with a real bullet and was bleeding out,” Stallings later said in a police statement.
He quickly surrendered once he realized it was officers shooting at him after he heard one of the officers say, “shots fired.” Stallings reportedly tossed his weapon, surrendered and got face down on the pavement with his hands in the air and not resisting arrest.
Stetson hopped out of the van and repeatedly kicked Stallings in the face and head and shouted “f—ing piece of s–t” at him. He also reportedly failed to use any commands. The criminal complaint filed by Stallings and his lawyer says Stetson also punched him and delivered knee shots to his face. At one point, Bittell reportedly held Stallings’ hands behind his back as Stetson struck him before Bittell yelled, “That’s it, stop!” Bittell also reportedly would claim falsely that Stallings was resisting arrest.
Stallings wound up with several cuts and bruises on his face and a fractured eye socket. He also was charged with eight crimes, including attempted murder of a police officer.
In September 2021, Stallings was acquitted by a jury after body-camera footage and surveillance videos contradicted what Stetson wrote in the police reports. He was awarded $1.5 million in a settlement with the city in May 2022.
Now a year later, Stallings gets more justice for his brutal attack. In addition to Stetson’s guilty plea, he issued a handwritten apology in court on Wednesday, according to The Associated Press. He admitted that he “crossed the line” when he used excessive force against Stallings.
“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,” Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison said in a statement sent to Associated Press.
Stallings didn’t buy the apology and disagreed with the plea deal.
“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 wrote in a statement to the Minnesota Reformer. “At the very least, he should be convicted for the felony conduct that is captured on video… Instead, he is being offered the opportunity to walk away with more lenient terms than the average citizen would face for aggravated assault.”
He added that the plea deal would continue the cycle of abuse by “malicious officers.”
Prosecutors said they would push for Stetson to serve two years of supervised probation instead of jail time when he is sentenced in August.
Stetson no longer has an active peace officer’s license in Minnesota. He also took a disability retirement last August and reportedly receives a pension of nearly $59,000. His criminal charges will not affect his pension.
Bittell, another officer involved, was never charged. The body-camera footage showed him kneeing and punching Stallings in the stomach, chest and back. The criminal statute of limitations, according to the Minnesota Reformer, will run out in a few weeks.