Fall of the Third Precinct: A minute-by-minute account

Minneapolis Police radio transmissions obtained by the FOX 9 Investigators, provide the first minute-by-minute account of the decision making that led to the fall of the Third Police Precinct in Minneapolis.

Mayor Frey said the decision he made at 9:32 p.m. on Thursday, May 28, to evacuate the Third Precinct “was painful, but was not difficult in the end.”

“Death to one of our officers or the general public, that was not a consequence I could have on my watch,” said Mayor Frey.

The Third Precinct, located at Lake Street and Hiawatha, was surrounded by an estimated 2,000 protestors that night who gathered three days after the police killing of George Floyd.

Nearby buildings — a liquor store, an auto parts store, and a pawn shop — were fully engulfed in fire.

Inside the precinct was a skeleton crew of 15 to 20 officers.  A SWAT team was on the roof.  A strike team was trying to maintain a tight perimeter that had been constructed around the footprint of the building and its rear parking lot.

But the Third Precinct was not the only flashpoint in Minneapolis that night.

Chaos Across The City

By 8:43 p.m., Minneapolis Police had multiple hot spots they were monitoring downtown.

A large crowd, estimated at 1,500, was at Washington Avenue and 3rd Avenue, slowly moving east towards the freeway.

Another large group was at Hennepin and 5th Street, moving towards the First Police Precinct. A smaller group was on Nicollet Mall and 4th Street, the heart of the downtown shopping district.

There were about 400 state troopers downtown seeking instructions from dispatchers, but they were never deployed to the Third Precinct.

Mayor Frey believes the strategy was to spread the department thin.  

“We were defending an entire city with 600 officers against thousands and thousands of protestors,” said Frey.

“It was not a matter of planning, it was a matter of math.  We simply didn’t have the numbers,” said Frey.

Meanwhile, at the Third Precinct, radio transmissions detail a situation deteriorating quickly.

“They’re Coming In!”

“We’ve got individuals breaching the gate at the Third Precinct and we got individuals at the front doors,” an officer inside the precinct said over the radio at 8:53 p.m.

“We’ve got bottles, rocks, heavy concrete, and paint balls in the rear lot,” replies an officer outside.

By 9:15 p.m., officers defending the precinct knew they were losing the battle, and ask to use small explosive scatter rounds that disperse gas, munitions considered at the upper limit of less lethal force.

“We’re getting mortars and rocks at 175 yards and we can’t reach them (rioters). Can we escalate use of force to use scat rounds?”

The response from a supervisor was quick.  “Negative on the scat rounds, negative on the scat rounds.  We have a plan.”

But officers at the precinct that night told the FOX 9 Investigators no plan was ever communicated to them.

At 9:15 p.m. a supervisor gives permission to use tear gas.

“We would, but we don’t have any,” comes the reply.

Soon, rioters pierced the perimeter.

“They’re coming in, they’re coming in the back,” said an officer on the roof.

At 9:32, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo called Mayor Frey to tell him police can no longer maintain order in the city.

Arradondo explained the bleak predicament at the Third Precinct, and Mayor Frey gave the order to evacuate.

“You had 15 to 20 officers inside, you had thousands of people outside the Third Precinct,” said Frey.

“The doors had been busted. You had people moving in.  Hand to hand combat was definite (possibility).  And the likelihood of very serious injury and death was high.  Death to one of our officers or the general public.  That was not a consequence I could have on my watch,” said Frey.

Now, the officers had to escape.

“We Are Sitting Ducks”

By 9:53, rioters were inside the precinct.  A supervisor goes from room to room in the sprawling building to make sure no one was left behind.  That morning officers had cleared out their lockers and desks of weapons, body cameras, and any intelligence files.

“We need to go, and we need to go now,” said a panicked officer on the radio at 9:54 p.m.  “We are going to lose that opportunity in about 20 seconds.”

In the parking lot behind the precinct, the SWAT and Strike teams are in their vehicles ready to depart, but more than a dozen officers are on foot.

“We’ve got to go, we are sitting ducks here at the back gate,” radios an officer.

But there’s a problem.  “I can’t get the gate open,” replies an officer.

One of the protestors had padlocked the back gait, the only exit, from the outside.

Video posted on YouTube shows squad cars crashing through the gate, as they try to provide cover for the officers escaping on foot.  The video shows rioters moving in, throwing bottles and debris at the fleeing officers.

Police walk three blocks to a rendezvous site. As they leave, they can see the precinct is on fire.

But they left behind ten officers who are protecting firefighters on Lake Street battling the blaze at the pawn shop.

“We are protecting firefighters, but if the protesters make it east we won’t have enough,” warns an officer left behind.

“The Third Precinct has been compromised,” announced a dispatcher.

At 10:13pm, Chief Arradondo, who is monitoring the scene from a couple blocks away, got on the police radio for the first time that night to announce defeat.

“City wide tone right now, for the loss of the Third Precinct,” said Arradondo grimly on the radio.

A tone, usually reserved to honor officers who die in the line of duty, was broadcast to Minneapolis Police officers city wide.

A Better Plan?

“The question we all have is if we were going to give it up why were we still in there?” asked Officer Richard Walker, who is on the board of the Minneapolis Police Federation.

Walker works at the Third Precinct in the weapons division.  He cleaned out his locker that morning, and said the rumor was the city had already planned to sacrifice the precinct.

“Why didn’t we have a better plan to evacuate everybody safely>  Instead of squad cars ramming the gate to get out, and literally officers running next to the squad cars to leave,” said Walker.

Walker, who was not present at the precinct that night, said many of the officers who were there sent final text messages to loved ones in case they didn’t make it out alive.

“When the order came to evacuate, I can assure you, you won’t find one Minneapolis cop who thought that was the right decision,” said Walker.

Mayor Frey said he believes it was the only decision.

“Imagine if one of our officers got killed,” said Frey.  “Imagine if a single member of the public was killed. It’s not something our city could have handled.”