The state's largest law enforcement union is demanding that prosecutors reveal why they twice rejected the Maple Grove Police Department's request for charges against a man who threatened to kill officers with a large knife during a confrontation two years ago that ended with him being shot.
"Somebody needs to explain how a man holding a knife can threaten police officers without any legal repercussions," said Sean Gormley, executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services, which represents more than 6,300 police officers, corrections officers, dispatchers and firefighters in Minnesota.
"Those officers are under intense scrutiny and sometimes face criminal charges for their conduct," Gormley said, speaking on behalf of the officers involved in the February 2018 encounter with 50-year-old DeWayne Burlingham at his Maple Grove home. "A man who threatens officers with a knife should face the same consequences. … All we're asking for is a fair look at this and why."
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced in late 2018 that the officers were justified in shooting Burlingham because "all reasonable attempts at [de-escalation] were unsuccessful, and officers found themselves in a confined space with a person advancing on them with a knife."
Yet, Freeman also decided later not to charge Burlingham for his actions during the confrontation. Dissatisfied with Freeman's decision, Maple Grove Police Chief Eric Werner asked for a re-examination. Freeman turned to his counterparts in Isanti County, and they came to the same conclusion.
"The facts and circumstances of the events … would not lead a reasonable jury to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that [Burlingham] committed an assault against the Maple Grove officers," Isanti County Attorney Jeff Edblad wrote in a letter in July 2019 to Freeman's office.
While Freeman's office declined Wednesday to explain its decision not to charge Burlingham, Assistant Isanti County Attorney Joel Whitlock pointed to several challenging factors including, "What was his intent? Knowing about [his] history of mental problems and drug use makes knowing his intent difficult."
"Adding to the issue is the circumstance of being tased multiple times, which can cause a person to act irregularly," said Whitlock, who participated in his office's review. "Therefore, while the officer was justifiably afraid at the moment he discharged his weapon, the standard at trial is not whether he was afraid, but rather was the resident's actions a clear attempt to assault him as determined by a reasonable person."
After twice losing the effort to have Burlingham charged, Maple Grove police Cmdr. Jon Wetternach would only say that even though "officer [Jeffrey] Albers was in fear of great bodily harm to himself or another officer … the Maple Grove Police Department respects the decisions" of the prosecutors and considers the case closed.
Burlingham, now 52, says his actions warrant no charges, nor does he believe the officers were justified in shooting and tasing him.
"I did nothing wrong," said Burlingham, who has since moved to California and receives disability benefits because of his gunshot injuries. "I was in my house, and they attacked me. They could have jumped on me after they tasered me. There were three of them. … I was defending myself."
On Feb. 7, 2018, officers Albers and David Anton responded to Burlingham's home after he called 911. The officers suspected he was having a mental health crisis, because they had visited previously regarding such concerns.
Burlingham let the officers in, grabbed a knife from the kitchen and started to poke himself in the eye, according to the Hennepin County Attorney's Office summary of an investigation conducted by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Anton ordered Burlingham to drop the knife, but he did not, so Anton fired a stun gun at him, Freeman's office said. But Burlingham held onto the knife and began to cut his stomach.
Both officers said he asked them to kill him. Burlingham moved toward Albers, still carrying the knife, and audio from the stun gun and squad car camera recorded the officers telling Burlingham "numerous times to stop and drop the knife," the summary said.
Fearful of being stabbed, Albers shot Burlingham, who stayed on his feet, but was no longer moving forward. Burlingham then began stabbing himself in the throat. Eventually another Maple Grove officer, Darren Struckmann, subdued Burlingham with a stun gun.
Burlingham later told investigators that he was high on methamphetamine at the time, hadn't slept for several days and was having hallucinations.
Once Burlingham was treated for his wounds, the authorities "sent him back out the door," Gormley said Wednesday. "They didn't offer him any treatment" for substance abuse.
For their actions, Albers and Anton each received a Medal of Honor in January from the city.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482