The death of George Floyd after being pinned to the ground by then-officer Derek Chauvin sparked protests of a magnitude not seen since the Civil Rights Era and placed race relations in America at the forefront of the national conversation. Inequities in policing and incarceration mean that this has been an especially tense time in jails and prisons, especially in Minnesota where Floyd was killed.
During a statewide moment of silence for Floyd, one police officer said, “Is this for the injustice of having Derek Chauvin locked up?” The remark angered officers of color who described the comment as inappropriate. The officer who made the comment was promptly placed on leave, but his comment was like lighting the fuse on a powder keg.
Three days later, at around 6:40 p.m. June 19, guards responded to a reported policy violation in the B-West cellblock at the prison in Stillwater. What began as a confrontation between two prisoners quickly escalated.
According to Liz Sawyer of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Two officers suffered a dozen blows to the face and head, while a third was stabbed in the ribs with a metal shank.” At some point during the brawl, one prisoner reportedly said, “This one’s for George Floyd.” All three officers were treated for non-critical injuries and released from the hospital within days, though no information was available about injuries sustained by any prisoners.
After the situation was under control and several inmates subdued, surveillance camera footage showed guard Travis Hansen spraying one of the subdued inmates with the equivalent of pepper spray.
Hansen was a 16-year veteran at the agency whose public record included a commendation for his response to a large prisoner altercation in 2013, where he was lauded by an associate warden for his ability to maintain “composure in a high stress environment.” He was also reprimanded twice, including for refusing to work a post to which he was assigned.
Corrrections Commissioner Paul Schnell condemned the attack on the guards and vowed to pursue charges against the prisoners involved but stated their actions did not justify Hansen’s unauthorized use of excessive force. “What happened to them was wrong ... it’s a serious crime. But that absolute wrong does not legitimize an after-the-fact use of force on somebody who is already under our control,” said Schnell.
Schnell did not comment on the firing of Hansen due to the state’s Data Privacy Act, but the department later confirmed Hansen was removed from the agency payroll. This issue remains unsettled however, as Hansen is entitled to a lengthy appeal process because he is a member of the guards’ union. As of press time, there were no reports he had been reinstated.
Schnell at least recognized that such abuses undermine community confidence in the agency. “Our professionalism is critical if we’re going to maintain our population’s voluntary cooperation,” he said.
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