MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Fires, anger and chaos reigned in parts of St. Paul in the days following George Floyd’s death.

Months later, a group of investigators and data analysts are working to hold people responsible for $82 million in damage to more than 300 St. Paul businesses.

The team is working out of a room that looks like a scene out of a movie. Surveillance photos, maps, scribbles and charts are plastered on the walls of the former conference room, with several desks spread out for social distancing.

The team, led by Cmdr. Axel Henry, is combing through thousands of pieces of evidence to catch the vandals, making this one of the largest investigations in the history of the St. Paul Police Department.

“There’s that old saying how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” Henry said. “It’s massive because you have so many victims, so much damage, so many people involved, and … it is a monstrous haystack that we’re sorting through.”

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Henry has help. A nine-person team of data analysts and investigators started working in June to identify crimes that happened during the height of civil unrest. Piecing things together is no easy task.

“If you have a crowd of 500 people out in the middle of the street, you don’t wanna grab the wrong person and say, ‘You were here so you must’ve been involved.’ We’re much more surgical and precise than that,” Henry said. “We’ve been able to kind of pin them down as they’ve moved up and down the block or throughout a neighborhood.”

Aside from social media content and tips from the public, the team is using body camera footage and surveillance from stores, CCTV, Metro Transit and the light rail to untangle the web of information and piece together evidence that stands up in court.

“So we’re probably talking 300-400 cases we’ve identified. Over 100 people we’ve got charges now I think on 10 or 12,” he said.

Many of the charges for burglary, theft and property damage are felonies. Despite initial indications that outsiders were doing the damage, the evidence so far suggests otherwise.

“Right now we’re charging more local people than non-local people,” Henry said.

He says the department is overstretched even without piling on this historic investigation — but he says it’s important.

“I think everyone has the fear of course that if you don’t do something, what will happen the next time?” Henry said. “Our community got ripped apart by this. When you break into a business and you destroy it or you ruin someone’s livelihood, the public has an expectation that we would do something about that, and I think every officer on our department has that same expectation.”

The United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is taking the lead on most of the city’s arson investigations. The burglary, theft and property damage offenses that this team is identifying carry maximum sentences of five or 10 years in prison, though Henry says most will likely not receive the harshest penalty for their crimes.

The phone number for the public to call if they can identify someone is 651-266-5900. They can also email SPPD-CUITF@ci.stpaul.mn.us. Video evidence can also be submitted to either.

People can remain anonymous—when submitting tips and evidence.

Erin Hassanzadeh