MINNEAPOLIS — Monique Cullars-Doty’s nephew Marcus Golden was thoughtful and good with his hands. He put together many pieces of furniture in her home.
He told her he’d return to finish the job, but Golden never made it back. On Jan. 14, 2015, the 24-year-old Black man was shot and killed by St. Paul police.
“They killed him before he came back to finish the table,” Cullars-Doty said. The spot in her basement where his final project would have gone is still empty, six years later.
The void that her nephew left behind is both symbolic and real for her, and so is the emptiness left by others who die after confrontations with police.
Losing a loved one to a police incident is sudden and shocking enough. But what ensues next, according to relatives and friends of those who died, is a harrowing process of trying to gather information, legal support, video evidence, money and – ultimately – the truth. And it’s no easy path for them, according to several who have endured the ordeal and spoken with USA TODAY.
Some have hailed Derek Chauvin’s murder and manslaughter convictions in George Floyd’s death as affirmation that police will be held accountable for killing Black people. But for those who have lost someone to a police confrontation, the case brings mixed emotions as they watch the Floyd family get the justice they’re still fighting for.
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“There’s a special name for the trauma that’s associated with a police homicide,” Cullars-Doty said. “When you’re a person of color, particularly when you have a Black man killed by police, there’s people who will celebrate.”
Family members who lost relatives at the hands of police in Minnesota in past years didn’t get that kind of attention – and, some fear, that is part of why they didn’t get justice, either.
Not long after Golden died, Cullars-Doty’s lawyer told her what would happen next: There would be secret grand jury proceedings and the officers would not be charged.
“To this day, I appreciate that because I see families fighting and in the back of my mind I’m like, ‘Dang they’re not going to get justice,'” she said. “I already know how this goes.”
Toshira Garraway tries to help others like her. Her support group in Minnesota, Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, aims to give people a place to tell their stories and meet others who feel the same sense of injustice.
The meetings are small but the purpose is large: to get justice for those they lost and change policing in Minnesota, particularly while the eyes of the world are on the Chauvin trial.
“We will not just sit back and watch George Floyd’s case knowing that they murdered our loved ones the same way — unjustly,” Garraway said during a meeting after the first week of jury selection in the Chauvin trial.
It’s been more than 11 years since she learned her fiance Justin Teigen was found dead at a recycling facility in the nearby city of Inver Grove Heights hours after he was pulled over by St. Paul police.
She believes he was killed by police in part due to the extent of his injuries. Police say surveillance footage shows Teigen hiding in a dumpster, and he must have been in the dumpster when a garbage truck came.
An autopsy conducted by the Dakota County medical examiner said Teigen suffocated as he was crushed in the recycling truck. It said he was intoxicated and had a minor head injury from a car crash.
Garraway said it hurts that one case is getting so much attention. But in the end, she knows Floyd’s case has put a spotlight on the problems in Minnesota.
“It is bad here,” she said. “The police are treacherous here. They have traumatized and brutalized, particularly the Black, Indigenous and minority community here in Minnesota.”
Like Garraway, almost everyone at this meeting, many of whom are Black, have lost a loved one after an encounter with law enforcement — people whose names aren’t known across the country. Many in the room are frustrated they never got the opportunity for justice.
In most cases, the officers involved were never charged. Some people are fighting for civil settlements years after their relatives died. Meanwhile, the city of Minneapolis approved a $27 million settlement for the Floyd family soon after jury selection started in Chauvin’s trial.
The bystander video, public pressure and a high-profile lawyer helped accelerate Floyd’s case. Many of the families in this room have waited months for basic information about what happened to the people they cared deeply about, said Michelle Gross, leader of Communities United Against Police Brutality.
“The police hold all the cards,” Gross said. “They’re the ones who did that killing, then they have all the body camera footage, the squad camera footage, every piece of the information that could help a family understand what’s happening. So then they hang on to that as long as they humanly can. … They often frankly outright lie about what happened.”
Then come the justifications for the killing and the “vilification of the victim,” Gross said.
Under Minnesota law, police officers are justified in using deadly force to protect themselves or another person from death or great bodily harm.
The meetings are part support group, part legislative strategy session. Many families believe getting justice is about more than a victory in the courtroom; it requires changing the laws and culture around policing to prevent future killings and increase accountability and transparency.
The families are pushing for nine bills that would eliminate the statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits, allow families access to unredacted body camera footage in critical incidents within 48 hours, and end qualified immunity for police officers.
“We’re in the streets demanding justice,” Garraway said at the meeting. “OK, what is justice and how do we get it? How we get it is through the laws changing.”
Two weeks after Floyd died, Minneapolis City Council members promised to dismantle the city’s police department and create a public safety system. That hasn’t happened.
At the state and city level, chokeholds have been banned. The city outlawed “no-knock” warrants in most situations. The city and state overhauled guidelines on use of force. Activists said those laws were defanged.
At the weekly Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence meeting, the group takes a moment to celebrate that two of their proposed bills — which would end police-only responses to mental health crisis calls and limit no-knock warrants — were sent to the Minnesota House floor, an important step to becoming law.
Gross, who delivered the good news, believes the attention of the Chauvin trial may help the coalition get some of its bills passed. Last summer, the group successfully lobbied for a statewide ban on warrior-style training after a three-year effort, but Gross, like many activists, said most reform efforts have failed.
The group is eager to know what’s next. Another press conference? A joint op-ed in local media? Another protest?
Garraway tells them she doesn’t know, but they have to keep working to change laws.
“It’s imperative that we get our stories out there,” she said. “The time is now while the world is watching.”
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In late August 2019, Amity Dimock told colleagues of an intense fear: that one day she would get a call saying her 21-year-old son, who has autism, had been killed by police. Four days later, she got that call: Her son, Kobe Dimock-Heisler, had been shot and killed by the Brooklyn Center police in front of his grandmother.
Nearly 1 in 4 people shot and killed by police have a mental illness, according to a Washington Post database of fatal shootings by on-duty police officers. Police have fatally shot more than 1,400 people with mental illnesses – the majority of whom were white – since 2015, according to the database.
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Dimock-Heisler’s grandfather called 911 after Dimock-Heisler threatened him with a knife and hammer, according to a report from the Hennepin County Attorney. His grandfather told the four responding officers everything was OK, but one officer said they needed to check on the safety of everyone inside.
Dimock-Heisler told officers he pointed a knife at his grandfather and cut himself because he did not want to be committed to a mental hospital again. A short time later, Dimock-Heisler rushed out of his chair and officers tried to stop him, according to the report.
Officers used a Taser on Dimock-Heisler during the struggle and then shot him six times after he grabbed a knife and tried to stab one of them, according to police.
The Hennepin County Attorney said in its report that the officers involved, Cody Turner, Brandon Akers, Joseph Vu and Stephen Holt, “spoke with him respectfully and empathetically, clearly attempting to de-escalate the situation.”
Dimock believes having four armed officers respond to a mental health crisis escalated a situation that had already been resolved. The officers should have known her son was a danger to himself but not to others because one of them had responded to a previous incident, she said.
For weeks, Dimock got little information about the case. She tried to go back to work, but she couldn’t focus.
“I spent a good six, seven months in bed and pretty much finally rolled out of bed when George Floyd was murdered,” she said. “I felt like there was this light shown on the situation, and it was my responsibility to get up and try to take advantage of that.”
Dimock said she was emotionally prepared when she learned there would be no criminal charges for the officers involved in her son’s death. She knew a civil lawsuit had little chance of success because of qualified immunity.
Still, she expressed frustration that Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman took immediate action in Floyd’s case but took almost a year to announce the officers involved in her son’s death would not be charged.
“George Floyd happened. Community outcry. Boom, they go forward and start dealing with George Floyd,” she said. “We just all hope for somebody to know our loved ones’ names, also.”
Prosecutors may be hesitant to prosecute police, consciously or subconsciously, because they work closely with them, according to Kate Levine, a professor of law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York who studies police prosecution.
“Prosecutors will do a lot of investigation and take a lot of care before they even decide to charge a police officer. It could take a year,” she said. “If you have a civilian, they’ll charge them as fast as they can and they’ll figure it out later.”
Dimock joins Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence meetings via Zoom from her home in Baxter, where her son’s ashes sit on a table near the kitchen, surrounded by photos, trinkets and succulents he started growing before he died. His stepfather takes care of them now.
She’s been comforted by connecting with others affected by police violence. “You just can’t quite understand the deep pain that we’ve experienced,” Dimock said.
Cullars-Doty, whose nephew was killed, said one of the biggest hurdle families face is the power of the police narrative.
Golden died in 2015 when police responded to a 911 call that claimed he was parked outside his ex-girlfriend’s apartment and sending threatening text messages.
Police claim Golden drove at officers at high speed as they approached him. Investigators said Golden’s car hit an officer’s gun and he fired two rounds, Minnesota Public Radio reported at the time, citing documents released by the department.
Golden’s family contends the officer slipped on ice and accidentally discharged his gun.
The other officer on scene said he thought the gunfire was coming from Golden’s car and fired shots at the driver’s window. After the SUV crashed, officers pulled Golden from the driver’s seat and handcuffed him. He had gunshot wound to his head.
Unlike Floyd’s case, officers estimated the entire incident lasted less than a minute. Police officers were the only witnesses. There was no surveillance, dash cam or bystander video, Minnesota Public Radio reported.
“It’s an uphill battle without a video,” Cullars-Doty said.
Many experts agree officers should not shoot at moving vehicles, and police departments around the country prohibit cops from doing so in certain situations. The New York City Police Department, for example, adopted a policy nearly 50 years ago prohibiting officers from doing so, unless the person driving was using or threatening deadly force, according to the Police Executive Research Forum.
But in May 2015, a Washington County grand jury concluded that the shooting of Golden was justified and declined to indict officers Jeremy Doverspike and Dan Peck.
Levine, the law professor, said grand juries often don’t indict police officers because cops are typically able to argue that the killing was justified.
If there is an indictment, police officers are afforded a presumption of credibility when they testify in court, Levine said. “Civilians are rarely believed if they are testifying opposite a police officer,” she said.
Cullars-Doty and her family continued to pursue justice, but she said police made it difficult to find out what happened. Four years after Golden’s death, for example, she said the department tried to put his vehicle up for auction and charge the family fees for storage at the impound lot.
“That’s evidence, you’re getting rid of evidence,” she said.
The family called a press conference. That’s when police told them the fees would be waived and the vehicle would not be sold. St. Paul police spokesman Steve Linders told the Pioneer Press at the time that police had been trying to reach the family to determine how to proceed and the press conference “made it clear they want the vehicle back.”
The family sued the city of St. Paul and the officers involved earlier this year, just before the statute of limitations was set to expire. They allege officers Doverspike and Peck used excessive force in violation of Golden’s constitutional rights.
Cullars-Doty, who is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Minnesota, said she’s pushing forward with her lawsuit not for money but to “clear” Golden’s name and hold police accountable.
“There has to be change,” she said.
Like Floyd, Brian Quinones’ death was captured on video from beginning to end. Police squad car cameras and Facebook Live video documented his final moments on Sept. 7, 2019.
Police say Quinones, 30, violated “multiple traffic laws” causing an officer to stop his vehicle “thinking that Quinones may be drunk” shortly after 10 p.m. One officer exited his squad car with his gun drawn and “Quinones quickly came up behind him, aggressively pointing a knife in his direction,” according to the Hennepin County Attorney.
Officers told Quinones to drop the knife and used a Taser on him. Quinones started to run and an officer started shooting, the county attorney’s office said. Three other officers on scene fired at Quinones.
He was shot seven times, according to an autopsy. He was not under drug or alcohol influence during the incident, it found.
“We ended up homeless, carless and then I ended up jobless due to COVID and husband-less all in a matter of like three months,” said his wife, Ashley Quinones, who was at the scene.
Each year around 100 knife-wielding people are killed by police, who can fire upon such suspects if they come within 21 feet, said Rajiv Sethi, professor of economics at Barnard College in New York and co-author of “Shadows of Doubt: Stereotypes, Crime and the Pursuit of Justice.”
There’s “no scientific basis in that 21-foot rule, and officers tend not to be killed by a visible knife,” said Sethi, who is studying the use of deadly force by U.S. law enforcement.
The five officers involved in Quinones’ death were not charged.
Ashley Quinones questioned why Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman was removed from Floyd’s case but continued to handle her husband’s case and others like Kobe Dimock-Heisler’s.
Watching some of the Chauvin trial, she said, “really upset me because my husband wasn’t given the same opportunity.”
Quinones filed a wrongful death lawsuit seeking $50 million against the city and the officers involved last June.
The suit describes Quinones as an aspiring musician, barber and proud father who moved to Minnesota from Puerto Rico more than 20 years ago. It contends Quinones wasn’t violating any traffic laws the night he was killed and officers conducted an “unlawful felony stop.”
Quinones has more information than many families: She was at the scene and has publicly available video and eyewitness evidence. Despite that, she said she is still missing “key details” about what happened to her husband.
“Not only do I not get criminal charges, no justice, but I also now have to fight tooth and nail” for information, she said. “This is not a fair fight.”
Quinones doesn’t have a high-powered attorney like Benjamin Crump, who is representing Floyd’s family. She’s turned to GoFundMe to fund her case.
She hopes to use her husband’s case as a blueprint to show others what to do in the aftermath of a police killing. More than that, she hopes to see changes made in police departments.
Quinones, who started her own organization called Justice Squad, called for “community accountability” and said organizers should do more to include families like hers.
“It’s important to center those people,” she said. “If you’re out here chanting and telling someone’s story, give them the benefit of telling the story themselves.”
Contributing: Eric Ferkenhoff and Marco della Cava, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg