Search About Newsletters Donate

The Minneapolis Cop Who Beat Him Pleaded Guilty. He Still Fears the Department Won’t Change.

Jaleel Stallings was swept up in the chaos of protests over George Floyd’s murder. The outcome changed his life.

A collage shows a side profile of a Black man in a suit, a clipping that shows a Minneapolis police badge and text, an image of protesters, and a mugshot of the same Black man with bruises on his face.

MINNEAPOLIS — In his mug shot, Jaleel Stallings is smiling.

Not his usual wide, easy grin. The situation was far too serious for that: The 27-year-old truck driver faced attempted murder charges and possibly decades behind bars. And the broken eye socket — where Minneapolis police officers had kneed and punched him over and over — made it painful to move his face.

This article was published in partnership with The Washington Post.

Nevertheless, Stallings smiled. For one thing, he was alive. He was a Black man who shot at the police, and he was still breathing to plead his case. In Minneapolis, just a few days after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, this felt like a minor miracle to him. Stallings was also smiling because he believed that once all the facts were out, he’d be released, and this would feel like a bad dream. Surely the justice system, flawed as it is, would see that this was all just a misunderstanding.

Instead, officers wrote reports that differed substantially from what video cameras recorded, according to court documents, and prosecutors tried to put Stallings away for over a decade. Critics on social media tarred his reputation in an ordeal that changed the trajectory of his life. He was ultimately acquitted of attempted murder of an officer, and he felt vindicated by a $1.5 million settlement from the city in his lawsuit alleging police violated his civil rights. But that lengthy process left Stallings with a stinging resentment. To the extent that anyone did the right thing, he concluded, it was only after they exhausted every possible avenue for doing the wrong thing instead.

Stallings’ case was among several instances of alleged misconduct in the Minneapolis Police Department examined by the civil rights division of the Justice Department after Floyd’s murder. The probe found that the department had systematically violated the civil rights of demonstrators, ultimately leading to a consent decree — an agreement to reform various aspects of the agency. The “sobering” report is “the foundation to make fair and lawful policing a reality for our entire community,” Ann Bildtsen, the first assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, said in 2023.

The independent police monitor tasked with enforcing that reform agreement is expected to release its initial plan this month.

But Stallings is skeptical about its chances of delivering meaningful change.

“Policy change doesn’t change the people who do the job. It just forces them to find a new way to go about doing what they want to do,” Stallings said. This sense of inevitability is what he’s left with four years later, much more than anything officers did to his body with knees and fists.

“I’ve been jumped. I’ve been in fights,” he said. “But seeing the criminal justice system … and the issues it has were a lot more traumatizing to me because they decide people’s lives on the daily.”

The Minneapolis Police Department says it has made many changes since 2020, including new guidelines meant to limit the use of crowd-control weapons. The department did not respond to questions ahead of the release of the monitor’s plan. But it has acknowledged that more reforms are on the horizon. “As we rebuild, I ask for patience. Our current situation did not happen overnight, and we will not correct it all overnight,” Chief Brian O’Hara wrote in a February op-ed in the Star Tribune.

Stallings grew up with a baseline mistrust of police, typical of his peers in Brooklyn, New York. He recounts unpleasant, but relatively banal, interactions with law enforcement — such as being told he “matched a description” and being briefly detained and photographed on a day he forgot his identification. Before Floyd’s death, Stallings had attended a few police protests, but he wouldn’t have described himself as an activist. Like many Americans, the brutality of Floyd’s death — his desperate pleas for air, the casual way the officers deflected onlookers’ concerns, how long it all lasted — was a breaking point for Stallings.

“I was tired of the cycle: A Black man is killed, there are promises to change, nothing comes, and something happens again,” he said.

A Black man, wearing a light purple T-shirt and blue shorts, sits in the driver’s seat inside his car. He looks through his window at a mural of multiple portraits.

Jaleel Stallings looks at a mural in August 2023 in St. Paul, Minnesota, that depicts people who died in police custody. “Mural No. 5” was done by artists “dedicated to honoring BIPOC killed at the hands of those sworn to protect,” according to their Instagram, @knowpeacemurals.

On the fifth night of protests in Minneapolis following Floyd’s murder, as Stallings recounts, he and a group of friends set off to join the crowds, as they had on prior days. Navigating concrete barriers and road closures, the group wound up in a parking lot about a mile from the convenience store where Floyd died. As they weighed their next steps, a stranger came running down the street, screaming, “They’re shooting.” Stallings’ adrenaline started to pump. He took cover for a moment behind his truck, then noticed a van approaching, he said.

Stallings was suspicious. The unmarked white cargo van had its lights off and its sliding door open as it rolled slowly by. “You ask any Black guy that has grown up in the hood … everybody is going to assume that’s a drive-by” shooting, he recalled.

He worried it could be armed white supremacists. Hours earlier, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz had warned that the situation in Minneapolis was volatile, with outsiders — specifically white supremacists — flocking to revel in the disorder.

Stallings, who was carrying a legally registered semiautomatic pistol, grew up hunting deer and doing target practice with his grandfather in the northern Minnesota wilderness. He also served four years in the Army, and ever since, he’d tended to carry a concealed weapon for protection.

As the van crept by, his gun was out, but down, surveillance video shows. Then Stallings says he heard a bang and felt a searing pain in his chest. Believing he’d been struck with live ammunition, he fired three shots. No one was hit. He retreated to the back of his truck, he said. The volley lasted barely two seconds.

What Stallings didn’t realize is that the van was carrying members of the Minneapolis Police SWAT team, and that he’d been struck by a marking round: a sponge-tipped plastic projectile coated in paint and fired from a 40-millimeter launcher. Another round fired at Stallings shattered the side mirror on his truck.

Body-camera footage obtained by Stallings’ lawyer showed that SWAT Unit 1281 was making liberal use of the launchers against protesters on the night they encountered Stallings.

As they prepared to clear the streets of protesters violating an 8 p.m. curfew, Sgt. Andrew Bittell’s body camera recorded him telling his team, “We’re rolling down Lake Street, and the first fuckers we see, we’re hammering ’em with 40s.”

The footage also showed officers repeatedly shooting at people from the van with no warning, and commanding people to “go home” only after launching projectiles. It was part of a systemic practice by Minneapolis police, according to the Justice Department investigation published last summer. The report concluded that police regularly used 40-mm launchers against protesters “who are committing no crime or who are dispersing.”

Almost immediately after firing his gun, Stallings said he heard the officers yell “shots fired,” and he realized he had just shot at police. He dropped the gun and lay face down on the ground with his arms over his head. “They probably want to kill me right now,” Stallings remembers thinking.

When Officer Justin Stetson reached Stallings, he launched more than a dozen punches, kicks and knees into Stallings’ face, surveillance video shows. In audio from Stetson’s body camera, Stallings can be heard pleading as the officer rains down more blows. Stetson’s superior, Bittell, told him “That’s it. Stop,” and briefly held Stetson’s arm back before cuffing Stallings. They booked him on attempted murder, armed riot and other lesser charges.

In his report about the incident, and in later testimony during Stallings’ criminal trial, Stetson said he kicked Stallings, believing he may still be armed. “A lot of stuff is running through my mind. The adrenaline is pumping,” Stetson testified.

Stetson could not be reached for comment. Neither could Bittell, who was not disciplined or charged with any wrongdoing.

Officers at the scene generated dozens of reports about what happened that night, many with conflicting details, as the Minnesota Reformer documented in a 2021 investigation. Some officers said they believed Stallings and his friends were looters. Another officer said police were looking for cars that had previously been involved in shooting at police, and claimed that Stallings’ truck resembled one of them — an assertion that was never supported by evidence. Multiple officers said Stallings resisted arrest, even though body-camera video showed his compliance.

In a pretrial order, state district Judge William Koch noted that the only moment that could have been construed as resistance — the few seconds it took Stallings to get his hands behind his back after being ordered to do so — was due solely “to the significant beating he was receiving.”

In 2021, after rejecting a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for over a decade, Stallings faced trial. His lawyer, Eric Rice, called just one witness: Stallings himself. Taking the stand is always risky for defendants, but the gambit paid off. A jury acquitted Stallings in September 2021.

“It was like winning the lotto,” except instead of money, “you got years of your life back,” he said. He recalled bumping into one juror in the courthouse after the verdict who told him something like, “Everything in my mind was going to convict you until you got up and testified.”

A Black man, wearing a black baseball jersey, listens to a White male attorney speaking while sitting at a picnic table.

Stallings with his attorney Eric Rice at Lilydale Regional Park in St. Paul, Minnesota, in August 2023.

The prosecutor who oversaw the case, then-Hennepin County District Attorney Mike Freeman, conceded in late 2022 that prosecuting Stallings was a “terrible example of justice run amok.” Freeman pinned the ultimate blame on the police, who “lied to us.” In an email, police spokesperson Sgt. Garrett Parten denied that officers had lied.

After Stallings’ acquittal, prosecutors turned their attention to Stetson, the officer who delivered most of the blows during Stallings’ arrest, according to surveillance footage. The former officer pleaded guilty to assault in May 2023.

In his statement to the court, Stetson apologized to Stallings for his “lack of control and poor judgment,” and acknowledged the Minneapolis police’s “historical mistreatment of the disadvantaged communities and against those engaged in peaceful civil protests.” In October, he was sentenced to 15 days at the county workhouse, two years of probation, and about $3,000 in fines and fees. The sentence should prevent Stetson from ever being a police officer in Minnesota again. Five other officers who responded to the incident were suspended over unreasonable use of force, according to disciplinary records obtained by the Star Tribune in April. Several others retired on disability claims before discipline proceedings began, including Bittell.

The Record

The best criminal justice reporting from around the web, organized by subject

Stallings called Stetson’s punishment a “slap on the wrist.” In the same courthouse just two years earlier, he had faced up to 40 years in prison. The officer was also something of a sacrificial lamb who took the blame while the decisions and culture that led to that moment were left off the table, Stallings says.

Sometimes people are surprised that Stallings remains haunted by that evening. Didn’t the system work, after all? Stallings went free, and the officer who beat him was criminally punished. But in Stallings’ view, his relatively happy ending was the result of an unlikely “perfect storm”: his spotless criminal record and military background, a private lawyer who agreed to take his case, and a bail fund that raised money to help release protesters and made it possible for Stallings to await trial outside jail.

Even timing probably played a role, with his trial coming a few months after Derek Chauvin’s conviction for Floyd’s murder. Rice, Stallings’ lawyer, said that if that case hadn’t happened and “we had not had a pool of jurors at least open to skepticism of the police, I firmly believe I’d be talking to Jaleel in prison today.”

That was a possibility Stallings was preparing for during the five days he spent in jail in 2020. In between the three bologna sandwiches allotted for breakfast, lunch and dinner, his mind alternated between possible realities. In one, he daydreamed of being somewhere else — perhaps a beach with a margarita, he said. But then the real world would tumble in, and he’d work on getting acclimated. “You’re going to spend a lot of time here,” he’d said to himself, “so start getting used to it now.”

Even after he was released on bail, his life was in limbo. His brand-new truck had been impounded as evidence in his criminal case.

He was also branded a “would-be cop-killer” on a social media account run by then-President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign, in a post aimed at attacking bail funds like the one that got him out.

“You took my innocence away,” Stallings said of the tweet. “You put it so that every new person that I meet, I now have to fight past a stereotype or them thinking I’m the bad guy.”

Co-workers kept their distance, he said, and family and friends couldn’t relate to the gravity of what he was facing. Mostly, they avoided talking about it. Erica Kantola, Stallings’ mother, said her son “retreated into himself” during those long 15 months.

Now that the ordeal is over, Kantola said Stallings still isn’t exactly his old self. He’s slower to trust people, she said, but “the biggest difference I see now is his drive to find a way to effect change.”

The main avenue for that is a fledgling nonprofit that Stallings named the Good Apple Initiative. For now, the organization is focused on setting up meetings with anyone open to sitting down, including police officers, to discuss how to change policing culture. That work largely continues over video chat because Stallings relocated to Houston shortly after his acquittal.

A Black man, wearing a black suit, looks pensive while standing in front of a memorial on a street.

Stallings at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis on Oct. 23, 2023. Stallings started a nonprofit organization, Good Apple Initiative, to foster conversation about changing police culture.

“When I’m in Minneapolis, I have a heightened sense of paranoia. I feel like I need to look over my shoulder constantly,” he said. He worries about retribution from the police there. In dark fantasies, he even imagines that officers, knowing he carries a gun, could contrive a scenario to justify shooting him dead.

Yet that same police department is the one he’s hoping to see get better, by empowering one “good apple” at a time. Stallings is full of little contradictions like this — between conciliation and fatalism — but he’s able to find peace in the tensions. “I live in reality,” he said, “but I don’t lose hope.”

Why we are using Jaleel Stallings’ arrest photo: To avoid stigmatizing people, The Marshall Project generally doesn’t publish arrest photos (mugshots). We are using one this time — with Stallings' agreement — because the image helps viewers understand his story and is evidence of his injuries during arrest.

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.