BCA: ‘Disturbance’ calls often most volatile for law enforcement officers

Burnsville Shooting Incident
Law enforcement officers make their way out of the Hennepin County Medical in Minneapolis following a domestic incident that left three Burnsville first responders dead on Sunday.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Details are still emerging about an incident last weekend where two police officers and one paramedic were shot to death while responding to a domestic call in Burnsville.

But both published and preliminary data from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) show that police officers have experienced a surge in assaults since 2019, with domestic incidents being some of the most volatile situations to which police officers respond.

Officers responding to “disturbance calls,” which include family disputes or people in a household with a firearm, often encounter a tense situation, said Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. 

“When they get there, they’re already in a situation where people are very emotional. It’s a crisis in the relationship,” Potts said. “Those situations can escalate very quickly.” 

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A poster honoring officers
A poster honoring Paul Elmstrand, Matthew Ruge and Adam Finseth sits outside the Burnsville City Hall on Tuesday.
Tim Evans for MPR News

During the standoff early Sunday in Burnsville, officers Paul Elmstrand and Matthew Ruge were shot to death along with paramedic Adam Finseth. The BCA said Ruge and Elmstrand were inside the home when they were initially shot and that Finseth was shot while trying to help injured officers move from the home to an armored vehicle.

The number of officers reporting being assaulted more than doubled from 2019 to 2023, to almost 1,200, according to the BCA data. Assaults involving firearms increased even more dramatically, from just 10 in 2019 to 59 last year.  

Potts said law enforcement officers have been coping with this rise in violence for some time, but that he expects members of law enforcement to feel rattled by the recent killings. He expects officers to lean on one another for support and for departments to make sure they get the mental health support they need before they return to work.  

“Communities should stand behind them and support them. This is extremely difficult work, and as we saw on Sunday,” Potts said. “It’s extremely dangerous work, and I think communities need to recognize that and lift up their law enforcement agency.” 

Seventeen officers were shot last year, including the fatal shooting of Pope County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Josh Owen in April 2013. Potts said Sunday’s killings were proof that law enforcement needs equipment that can keep them safe when they’re being threatened with high-powered weapons. 

The BCA reported Thursday that Shannon Gooden, the man they say shot the first responders in Burnsville, opened fire at the officers without warning. The agency says Gooden fired more than 100 rifle rounds at first responders and at an armored vehicle before fatally shooting himself.

Potts said his organization is focused on implementing legislation that was passed last year, including required background checks for private firearm transactions and an extreme risk protection order allowing a court to temporarily prohibit someone from having a firearm if they’re at risk of hurting themselves or someone else. 

Violent crime in large cities across the country rose during the pandemic, but many places, including Minneapolis, have seen a decline since 2022. 

It’s not clear why assaults on police officers have become more common in Minnesota. One theory is that the pandemic and George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer led to an erosion of trust in law enforcement, said Professor James Densley of the School of Criminology and Social Work at Metro State University and co-founder of the Violence Project at Hamline University. 

“There was perhaps a sense that the legitimacy of policing as an institution has been challenged such that they don’t perhaps command the same authority as they used to,” Densley said. “This could result in more emboldened offenders who are not going to take police commands at face value and are more likely to challenge their authority.” 

While the national conversation following Floyd’s killing focused on systemic racism and the excesses in American policing, Densley said people often overlooked how the potential violence police face can affect how they do their jobs. 

The gun industry group National Shooting Sports Foundation estimated in 2020 that more than 400 million guns are in circulation around the country. 

“In every encounter, whether it’s a traffic stop and domestic violence situation, whether it’s just a casual encounter with a civilian on the street, the prospect of someone being armed changes the way that people interact,” Densley said. “It inherently makes policing more combative and it enables this distance between police and the public because there’s a fear that somebody might get shot.”  

People watch a procession go by
Community members pay their respects along a procession route in Jordan on Tuesday.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Densley said it’s important for there to be a balance, where officers are trained to stay safe but not trained to be overly fearful where they might overreact. He said conversations about police accountability and police wellness are related and need to happen together. 

“It means officers who maybe would want to be more proactive in their interactions with civilians, who would actually prefer to talk to people and de-escalate and do all the things we want them to do, feel a little hamstrung in doing so, because in the back of their mind there’s this concern, ‘If I get too close or if I’m not in the right position or the right place,’” Densley said, “‘this could turn deadly in an instant.’”  

Many police departments in recent years have established officer wellness programs. They’re a big part of the state Department of Human Rights agreement with Minneapolis over policing.

The BCA will eventually present the findings of its investigation to the Dakota County Attorney’s Office for review. A public memorial for the first responders is planned for next Wednesday.