Panel: Mental health, crisis training needed to curb fatal police shootings

A man stands at a podium while eight men standing behind him.
Clarence Castile, uncle of the man shot to death by a St. Anthony police officer in 2016, spoke at a press conference in downtown St. Paul on Monday. The death of his nephew, Philando Castile, was one of the dozens of cases that prompted the formation of a panel to review police use of deadly force in Minnesota. The panel has released its preliminary recommendations.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Minnesota should boost police training, do better at intervening in mental health crises and treat the families of people shot by police with more concern.

Those were among more than two dozen recommendations to curb fatal encounters with police released Monday by a panel of police, legal and policy experts that also included the uncle of Philando Castile, a Twin Cities man killed in a high-profile police shooting in 2016.

“These are tragedies and because of that tragedy, we knew we had to do something about it,” said John Harrington, the state’s public safety commissioner.

Harrington and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison released the report, which comes after a yearlong series of hearings and policy discussions.

“I want to thank the moms, the sisters and the moms and the relatives that call came forward to tell us their story,” Harrington said. “Reliving what was probably, in my mind, no doubt the worst day of their lives cannot have been easy, but it enlightened this process and made this process an honest process.”

The report includes 28 recommendations and 33 “action steps.” The recommendations include:

  • Better approaches to people suffering from mental health crises

  • A specialized unit in the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to investigate use of deadly force by police

  • More police officer training focused on de-escalation and crisis intervention

  • Better mental health support for police officers

  • Dedicated staff to act as a liaison between investigators and families impacted by deadly force encounters

  • More diverse ranks in law enforcement agencies

The report did not recommend any changes in state law that govern the use of force by police. A 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Connor, has become the guiding law for county attorneys in Minnesota to assess such situations and determine if a use of force was justified.

But Ellison said there is still room for improvement.

“This is new. This is groundbreaking,” said Ellison, who convened the 18-member group with Harrington. It also included Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo, ACLU field organizer Elizer Darris and Clarence Castile, the uncle of Philando Castile, who was shot to death by a St. Anthony police officer in 2016.

Castile said he was encouraged by the recommendations, although they fell short of mandating body-worn cameras for all licensed peace officers.

“My hope is that we can mandate something like that in the future,” Castile said at a press conference in St. Paul as the preliminary recommendations were released.

Law enforcement officials expressed some hesitation as well. Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said he was concerned that the recommendations could eventually give the state attorney general the authority to review shootings, including review of past cases that have already been ruled as justified.

“We have a system. We have a court system,” Peters said. “When a case goes through the courts, to me, that’s whether something was justified or not. Now, if there’s new evidence, sure. But that’s with any kind of case out there.”

He also expressed some reservations about a bill introduced by state Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, last week, making modifications to the law governing the use of deadly force by police. The legislation would add police use of force as a potential rights violation and mandate that officers “exercise special care when interacting with individuals with physical, mental health, developmental, or intellectual disabilities.”

Peters said his group, which represents police officers across the state, remained concerned about potential impacts on due process, financial liability and officer privacy in counseling settings.

Harrington said his agency would take the lead on many of the initiatives, but he said the efforts would require additional funding from the Legislature. The full report is expected to be released in the coming weeks.

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