Police data show many circumstances lead to deadly force
Minnesota law enforcement officers have shot and killed at least 60 people since 2008, according to an MPR News analysis of data from the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, information from police departments across the state and court documents.
According to state death records, 95 percent of those killed by police since 2008 were male. Whites made up 61 percent and African-Americans 26 percent. The median age of African-Americans killed by police since 2008 is 24. For whites, the median age is 36.
Though the percentage of blacks in Minnesota killed by police in that time is more than four times greater than the percentage of black Minnesotans, the number is too small to make conclusions about racial disparity, said one expert, addressing the disturbing question that's been coursing through the country since last summer's tragedy in Ferguson, Mo.
The data, though, provide a view of the myriad circumstances that have confronted Minnesota law enforcement officers in volatile encounters.
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For example: Drugs, alcohol or mental illness were mentioned in accounts of more than a dozen and a half of the instances in which an officer shot and killed someone. In more than 70 percent of the fatal encounters since 2008, police shot people holding guns or knives. In nearly 30 percent of fatal cases, police reported being shot at.
And of the more than 87 officers who fired their guns in the confrontations, none so far has faced criminal charges.
Minnesota law enforcement agencies are legally required to report instances in which officers fire their weapons, including when the shots fired are fatal.
But data on the race of police officers involved in a shooting is hard to come by. Some agencies, including the St. Paul Police Department, refused requests from MPR News for such information, citing state data privacy laws. Some agencies voluntarily released the race of officers involved in shootings. In a few cases, the racial identities of officers were revealed in BCA and court documents.
In 34 incidents where the race of both the officers and the people they shot were known, 12 involved white officers fatally shooting people of color. In eight of those incidents, the people killed were African-American.
It is difficult to compare the number of officer-involved shooting deaths in Minnesota with those in other states, said David Klinger, professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Minnesota is the only state in which law enforcement agencies are compelled to keep track of officer-related civilian deaths, said Klinger, a former police officer.
Klinger said he'd like states to keep track of how many rounds were fired by police, how many officers were present, how many officers fired their guns and what types of weapons the suspects were carrying.
"There's really no logical reason for us not to have that [data]," Klinger said. "We have data on all sorts of other things. Why don't we have that on what arguably is the most important thing that the government does in terms of inserting them in the lives of citizens — i.e. trying to put a bullet in their body? There's not much that is more serious than that."
Dangerous situations for police, suspects
Most officers will never use deadly force during their careers, said Nathan Grove, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training. But many could face life-threatening situations, he said.
"When you have traffic stops, that's an unknown risk — as evidenced in the tragedy ... last summer," Gove said, citing the July 2014 shooting death of Mendota Heights Police Officer Scott Patrick. "An officer never knows what they're walking up upon."
Brian Fitch Sr. pointed a gun out of the window of his car during a traffic stop and shot Patrick as the officer approached on foot, according to the Ramsey County Attorney's office. Police later shot and wounded Fitch in a shootout that occurred after an eight-hour manhunt. Prosecutors charged Fitch with murder. His trial began last week in St. Cloud.
Patrick was one of six law enforcement officers killed on duty since 2008. All were shot to death. In 2009, when police responded to a domestic disturbance call, a man fatally wounded North St. Paul officer Richard Crittenden with his own gun after wrestling it away from him. Another officer later shot and killed Devon Dockery, the man police say killed Crittenden.
Domestic calls can be particularly volatile and potentially dangerous for officers, Gove said. More than one quarter of fatal officer-involved shootings in Minnesota since 2008 occurred during domestic calls.
Gove, who did not use lethal force during his 29-year career in law enforcement, said while every situation is different, in most cases the person with the gun or knife can avoid harm by complying with officers' orders.
"I'm familiar with very few incidents where the suspect wasn't given ample opportunity to comply and be taken into custody without any more difficulty," he said.
Compliance with an officer's commands, however, doesn't guarantee that the officer will refrain from using excessive force, Minneapolis attorney Steve Smith said. "It's a very simplistic thing to say, 'All you have to do is follow directions, and nothing happens,'" said Smith, who has represented clients who have filed lawsuits alleging police brutality.
Smith said in one case, his client thought he was complying with an officer's commands to "get down." Smith's client, a young man, stepped out of a car, put a knee on the ground, and held up his hands. That didn't stop an officer from kicking the man in the ribs. The officer later explained in a deposition that he wanted the man to lie down on the ground, Smith said. The city of Minneapolis eventually reached a legal settlement with Smith's client.
St. Paul police tactics questioned
The number of African-Americans who have died in encounters with police has raised alarms in St. Paul. Since 2008, its police officers have been involved in more fatal shootings than any other Minnesota department.
More than half of the 11 people shot and killed by St. Paul Police officers were black.
Even though civil liberties advocates say they can't explain why encounters between police and people of color turn deadly, it's clear that minorities have more contact with police, even for low-level offenses like drug possession.
A recent study of law enforcement data by the ACLU found that African-Americans in Minneapolis were more than 11 times likelier than whites to be arrested for possessing marijuana, even though studies show similar usage rates, the report concluded.
"In the numbers the ACLU put out, you see in terms of low-level drug arrests you get a lot more African-American males searched for marijuana and then ticketed for marijuana possession than whites," said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota Chapter of the ACLU.
He said race plays a role in how often people of color come into contact with police but doesn't explain why some confrontations turn deadly.
Jon Roesler, an epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health, said the 60 fatalities from police shootings the past six years can't be analyzed for racial distinctions because number, though tragic, is too small to provide conclusions.
However, he said there is an important factor to consider when looking at racial differences between how often black and white Minnesotans die every year.
"The disparities may not be surprising given the over-representation of African-Americans in the gun deaths occurring in Minnesota and nationwide," Roesler said.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the gun homicide rate for African-Americans in Minnesota age 15-24 is nearly 20 times higher than that of whites in the same age group.
MPR News reporter Laura Yuen contributed to this report.
From 2008 until 2015, at least 60 people were shot and killed by police officers in Minnesota. Who, where and how:
Sources: Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, police department data, court documents and news reports from 2008 through Jan. 25, 2015 | Map data gathered and presented by MPR News' Meg Martin and Brandt Williams.