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Some of MPD's newly appointed leaders have stains on their lengthy records

Jun 10, 2023

Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara announces a restructuring Monday in downtown Minneapolis. Photo by Deena Winter/Minnesota Reformer

When Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara walked onto the rooftop of a city building earlier this month to announce a restructuring of the department, he was flanked by his new leadership team made up of nine department veterans.

He named two assistant chiefs, five deputy chiefs and two precinct inspectors — with an average of 25 years of experience working for the city. O’Hara said they were “responsive,” “loyal to their oaths,” and served with professionalism and respect.

O’Hara released a statement defending his picks, saying since he was appointed last year, he’s observed their management style and community interaction, and they are “some of the finest leaders to ever don the MPD patch” and he’s confident it’s the right team to lead the department.

“They’ve seen this city prosper. They’ve also seen this city’s challenges. They are decorated veterans. They are community leaders. They are respected officers, both by the members of this department and by the people of this city.”

But some of them have some stains on their records.

The new assistant chief of community trust, Christopher Gaiters, was in charge of recruiting, hiring and background investigations when the department hired Tyler Timberlake, an officer with a history of using excessive force.

Timberlake repeatedly used a stun gun on a disoriented, unarmed Black man wandering a street in Virginia in 2020.

When confronted about the questionable hire, O’Hara ordered a full investigation into MPD’s background checks and hiring processes, saying Timberlake was “highly recommended” to him for hire after multiple layers of review.

O’Hara said he planned to make “substantial process changes” to ensure that every potential hire presented to him for sign-off was adequately vetted.

Gaiters will oversee recruitment and command a newly created Constitutional Policing Bureau, a new Internal Affairs Bureau, and a restructured Professional Standards Bureau.

Deputy Chief of Patrol Jon Kingsbury has been with MPD since 1995, rising to supervise SWAT teams and train them on “best practices, tactics, and processes,” according to his LinkedIn page.

He was SWAT commander in November 2020, when Mayor Jacob Frey temporarily scaled back no-knock warrants but still allowed the police chief to conduct unannounced raids in certain dangerous scenarios, such as hostage situations.

It was often advertised as a no-knock ban, sparking outrage in early 2022, when a SWAT team broke into a Minneapolis apartment and shot and killed 22-year-old Amir Locke, who had been sleeping on a couch, igniting tensions again in a city still reeling from the police killing of George Floyd.

Kingsbury was also supervising SWAT teams that adopted a militaristic approach to protesters amid riots after Floyd’s killing. Members of the SWAT team drove around the city in unmarked vans and fired 40 mm plastic rounds without warning at people breaking curfew.

In its investigation of MPD, the U.S. Department of Justice found the SWAT team and other officers showed contempt for First Amendment rights. Their report recounted how a SWAT team member assisting with a 2021 Brooklyn Center protest repeatedly aimed his 40 mm launcher at protesters from a rooftop and joked “What if I can get ’em?”

Kingsbury recently reposted links on LinkedIn praising Jason Aldean’s song “Try That In a Small Town” and decrying “wokeness” in Austin, Texas. He said people should rise up against their true oppressor, “the privileged criminal class.”

In 28 years with MPD, Kingsbury has had 13 misconduct complaints lodged against him, but no discipline. He will lead five precinct inspectors and the day-to-day operations of the patrol division.

Fifth Precinct Inspector Christie Nelson was suspended after a nearly two-year investigation into her handling of a 2015 use-of-force incident.

After an officer hit a fleeing suspect with his squad car, he reported it to Nelson, a sergeant at the time, and his supervisor. She wrote that the suspect tripped on his untied shoes, hit a tree and ricocheted onto the squad car.

Even though there was dash cam footage of the arrest and a camera in the squad car captured the conversation in which the officer told Nelson he hit the suspect with his car, a lengthy investigation ensued, and Nelson was suspended for 10 hours without pay. She was later promoted to a lieutenant.

In nearly 26 years with MPD, Nelson has had 18 misconduct complaints, but was only disciplined once, and had another case mediated. She did sign onto a letter condemning Derek Chauvin for killing Floyd.

Nelson will oversee patrol and investigations in the precinct.

Deputy Chief of Internal Affairs DeChristopher Granger has had six misconduct complaints lodged against him in his 28-year MPD career.

He was suspended for 40 hours for failing to report a drunk driving incident in 2007. Granger was with two other officers, one of whom had been drinking and later drove into a picnic table outside a bar. The officer then went to a strip club and refused to pay for a lap dance.

Granger was called and intervened, but then the officer took a squad car and drove while intoxicated. Granger did not report the incident to internal affairs, according to an arbitration decision.

The bar-hopping, drunk-driving cop resigned, and the other officer was disciplined, along with Granger, for not taking action even though he saw the officer consume alcohol while in possession of an MPD Tahoe and left him, intoxicated and unsupervised, in a police garage, according to the arbitration document. He also failed to disclose it when questioned by a commander, per city records.

None of this information is included on the city’s officer complaint website.

Granger will oversee the internal complaints section, the force investigations section, and the candidate investigations section.

Second Precinct Inspector Nick Torborg has had 14 misconduct complaints during his nearly 30-year MPD career, with one sustained in 2004.

Richard T. Williams sued Torborg and nine other officers for allegedly hog-tying, kicking, beating and gouging his eyes while he was handcuffed in the back of a raid van after a 2004 search of his house for drugs. Williams said his wrists were bruised and fractured from the handcuffs, and he sustained bruises and injuries to his back and ribs and required medical treatment.

The case was settled in 2008.

Torborg will oversee patrol and investigations in the precinct.

Katie Blackwell was promoted to be O’Hara’s assistant chief of operations, commanding day-to-day law enforcement and investigations.

Blackwell previously was the commander in charge of training officers, and ran the field training program. She selected Derek Chauvin — whom she had known for about 20 years — to be a field training officer. She testified during the federal civil rights trial of the three other officers who helped Chauvin restrain Floyd that she didn’t see any red flags in Chauvin’s record.

During Chauvin’s murder trial, she testified that officers were trained to avoid causing positional asphyxia — the inability to breathe — by moving the person to their side or upright as soon as possible. Blackwell said Chauvin was never trained to put a knee on a person’s neck.

“I don’t know what kind of improvised position that is; it’s not what we trained,” she testified.

But Chauvin’s attorneys showed the jury MPD training videos and photos depicting officers detaining people in a similar manner to how Chauvin restrained Floyd.

When Abigail Cerra, former chair of the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission, asked MPD for information on how they trained officers about positional asphyxia, they gave her information about excited delirium — a controversial medical diagnosis that police say can give people superhuman strength — and Blackwell told her the two were related.

Excited delirium has not been recognized by the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association or World Health Organization, but has been widely used by police to justify force and explain deaths of people in custody.

Cerra said there were multiple, lengthy MPD trainings on excited delirium, but just one with a bullet point on one slide that mentioned positional asphyxia.

Cerra said unlike most city employees, however, Blackwell was always responsive, professional and transparent in her dealings with the PCOC.

After the Floyd case, MPD began training focused solely on positional asphyxia and how to avoid it, Cerra said.

O’Hara said his leadership team members were “clear choices” for their roles, and since appointing them, he’s seen their commitment to the job, “each working every day to ensure we center all of our department’s operations and every decision made through our main principles of rebuilding trust with community, reducing crime, and restoring pride in the MPD patch.”

by Deena Winter, Minnesota Reformer August 29, 2023

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Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.