Guns on the street and encounters with violent, mentally ill and drug addicted people explain the uptick in St. Paul's officer-involved fatal shootings, Police Chief Thomas Smith said Friday.
In his first interview about police shootings since his officers shot and killed 24-year-old Marcus Golden two weeks ago, Smith said the numbers don't tell the full story of the dangerous situations officers routinely confront.
"The majority of time officers are not using deadly force," he said. "They're taking people into custody with firearms and other weapons, and they're doing it safely and securely. And there are people in society today — including in our city — who will do harm to officers, and who will kill officers, and who have attempted to kill our police officers."
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In 2010, Jason Jones killed Maplewood Police Sgt. Joseph Bergeron as the officer attempted to investigate a carjacking. After a daylong manhunt, Officer David Longbehn encountered Jones, who fractured Longbehn's face with a metal object. Police say Longbehn fired his gun after Jones grabbed for it, and Jones was killed.
St. Paul police have shot and killed 11 people since 2008, according to an MPR News analysis. Police in Minneapolis, a much larger city, have killed four in that time. Smith said the use of deadly force was justified in all the St. Paul cases.
While violent crime has gone down nationally in recent decades, gun violence in particular continues to plague urban areas, the chief added. In 2012, the department recovered a record number of firearms, more than 600.
That's a huge increase over previous years, he said. "Fifteen years ago, you hardly ever heard of anybody having a gun."
Out of the 11 shootings since 2008, at least eight of the people killed by St. Paul police were men of color. And they've taken place at a time of simmering tensions between African-American community members and law enforcement across the country, particularly in the wake of decisions by grand juries not to indict white police officers who killed unarmed black men in Missouri and New York.
Smith, who claims mixed ancestry including African-American heritage, said he is talking with black community leaders about their concerns that most of the men killed by police in St. Paul were minorities. He said he's also listening to concerns of "implicit bias" of officers when faced with split-second decisions.
"It's a new era today," he said. "There's loud voices nationally. We're not closing our eyes to those conversations, and we're working with our partners to address those issues."