The Minnesota Freedom Fighters are hard to miss.
In the days following the deadly police shooting of Winston Smith in June 2021, members of the group patrolled Uptown wearing body armor and guns slung over their shoulders.
They said they were armed and ready to protect peaceful protesters amid the chaos. They said they had clearance from senior Minneapolis City Hall officials.
But the Minnesota Freedom Fighters don’t have a security contract with the city of Minneapolis.
In fact, the group is not licensed to provide security in Minnesota at all, according to state regulators.
Yet after police confiscated firearms from several members of the group last year, police reports show officers were told to return the weapons as quickly as possible.
Sasha Cotton, director of the Office of Violence Prevention, wanted to know “what the delays were”, according to police reports.
One officer noted that “direction came from the mayor’s office to expedite the process.”
This officer also wrote that Deputy Chief Kathy Waite said freedom fighters “need their guns to go to work.”
The tapes, which have not been previously reported, reveal new details about the fragile relationship between police, city hall and armed community groups during the height of the unrest in Minneapolis.
Several law enforcement experts interviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES say the records show an inappropriate level of political influence on criminal investigations.
Repeated requests to interview Mayor Jacob Frey were denied.
However, at a recent press conference, 5 INVESTIGATES asked Frey if his office had intervened in the investigation of members of the Freedom Fighters.
“Where weapons were confiscated, it shouldn’t have been…of course we want those weapons returned,” Frey said. “I don’t remember giving any instructions on this.”
The deputy chief later confirmed that the city had been contacted by freedom fighters for help recovering their property after criminal charges were dismissed for rioting and weapons violations.
“I then spoke with the mayor’s office and confirmed that our return process was underway under standard protocol,” Waite said in a statement. “It is always in the interest of the City and the MPD to return assets to the rightful and legal owners as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
But records show officers expressed concern that some of those guns were confiscated from people who didn’t legally own them, didn’t have a license to carry them, or had criminal histories that made them ineligible to own a gun. fire.
“If you’re trying to speed it up and skip a step or two, then maybe suddenly you’re giving it back to someone who doesn’t legally own it or shouldn’t legally wear it,” Pat Nelson said. , a professor at Mankato State University who also worked for MPD for 16 years.
As rioters and looters swamped the city in the days following the 2020 killing of George Floyd, records show officers were unsure which community groups were allowed out after curfew.
“What is your scope of authority?” Who are you protecting? Why are you protecting them? And then, was that communicated to the peace officers in the area? And to me, it seems like it wasn’t,” Nelson said.
In one case, officers arrested a man with a handgun who claimed to have obtained permission from the mayor’s office to provide security in the community.
The individual did not have a carry permit and said it was his brother’s gun, according to a Minnesota State Patrol incident report.
A soldier later noted that the man was a criminal, which prohibited him from owning a firearm.
The soldier also described another man with a rifle “dressed in a tactical-type vest that appeared to be loaded with multiple magazines.”
Officers at the scene let the two gunmen go after two people arrived at the scene “who identified themselves as being from the mayor’s office,” state patrol and police records show. Minneapolis.
An MPD officer wrote in his report that it seemed like “the politically expedient thing to do” given that their actions were sanctioned by the city.
“It’s a sergeant who wrote this that’s caught up in a political whirlwind,” Nelson said. “He knows that legally it’s probably not the right thing to do. But he’s caught up in the fact that his boss, or his boss’s boss seems to have given these people permission.
Several community groups received curfew exemptions during the 2020 and 2021 riots.
However, a city spokesperson downplayed the relationship between city hall and armed groups like the Freedom Fighters.
“These are informal relationships,” Sarah McKenzie said in an email. “We have always specified that the City could not finance armed groups. However, knowing who is working to prevent violence in the community, paid or unpaid, armed or unarmed, is a responsibility of our office.
Freedom fighters have not been granted a formal curfew exemption, according to the city.
After multiple attempts to reach the Freedom Fighters, a member of the group responded Thursday, but did not comment on police records.
But records indicate that armed members of the group received special attention from city hall after police confiscated their firearms last year.
Deputy Chief Waite requested an update specifically for the mayor on the return of guns.
One officer wrote in his report that he “complyed with that order and did various things to expedite the process as much as possible.”
Larry Gaines, a criminology professor at California State University, San Bernardino, said the records showed an inappropriate level of political influence.
“Let the police do their job,” he said.
Marc Buslik, former Chicago police commander, said bad things can happen when politicians get involved in police investigations.
“It’s the risk that this kind of political influence that they have will trickle down to this level.”
Professor Nelson, a former MPD sergeant, said she knew the officer who documented many of the concerns.
“You can hear the frustration in his tone in his report about being caught up in a political maelstrom,” she said. “There was no good way out for him on this and he documented what he could.”