Policing in Minnesota: What 2.5 years of use-of-force data shows, and what it doesn’t

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Since August 2020, Minnesota has expanded its data collection of use-of-force incidents involving members of law enforcement, but questions remain for many about the integrity of the reporting process.

Before changes were made, officer-involved shootings were the only use-of-force statistics routinely included in the annual Minnesota Uniform Crime Report compiled by the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).

That means cases not involving a gun, like the murder of George Floyd, wouldn’t be included in the report’s use-of-force chapter.

Minnesota now requires police departments to report a broader range of use-of-force data. In conjunction, the BCA has broadened its independent review of force incidents and nearly doubled its caseload in the last couple of years following the creation a wholly independent Force Investigations Unit.

“It’s not even housed with the rest of our investigations,” said BCA Superintendent Drew Evans.

“They don’t conduct any other investigations other than conflict investigations where a peace officer or elected official, for example, is accused of a crime. And therefore, it’s creating that true independence from law enforcement.”

As Evans went on to explain, police departments are not required to turn to the BCA for a review, but as of August 2020, they are required to report every time an officer causes “serious bodily injury,” causes death, or fires a gun at or “in the direction” of a person regardless of the result.

About three years of data exist so far: Minnesota police agencies reported 45 use-of-force incidents in 2020, 30 in 2021, and 21 in 2022. So far in 2023, agencies have reported at least 6 incidents, and 5 of those involved guns.

“Those numbers are very low,” said Yohuru Williams, history professor and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas.

“I think if you talk to community activists and you were engaged with people in community, they would tell you that, anecdotally, it’s probably much higher,” Williams added.

He argued the statistics are likely reflective of a lack of reporting rather than a decrease in incidents.

“Going back to 1997, the police looked at the data and said, ‘Look, numbers are going down. This is a reflection of better training, more accountability.’ But in reality, what you heard the community saying is that those things weren’t there at all, people just lost confidence,” Williams said.

“People always argue they don’t report because they find that reporting doesn’t result in the discipline of those officers, and the testament to those failures is that many of those officers go on to commit other acts of brutality.”

However, in most cases, what’s not reported doesn’t get attention, making accountability in part the charge of the injured party.

“Absolutely,” Williams echoed, adding, “And incumbent on the police to follow up.”

Therein lies the second shortcoming, according to Williams: Police departments ultimately determine if their officer caused “serious bodily injury,” defined by the FBI to mean incidents including “broken bones, internal injuries, stitches required, etc.”

Asked if the definition leaves any room for subjectivity, Williams said, “I think this is what’s dangerous about that type of metric.”

“Chokeholds for example, which are supposedly banned by police practice, are a good example. That wouldn’t leave a mark on someone, but certainly that’s something that could be very traumatic for a person to endure.”

Asked if there’s oversight of what is and isn’t being reported by local law enforcement agencies, Evans said, “If we learned of something, we would certainly follow up with that agency.”

“But it is left to the agency to ensure that they are complying with the law at the local level,” Evans continued.

The BCA has taken a step toward building public trust, Williams acknowledged.

“What they’re missing out on,” Wiliams added, is that as long as the accountability process “doesn’t involve the public, that doesn’t have that sense of transparency, there’s gonna be a lot of public distrust around that.”

The new data requirements are a part of a nationwide effort that Minnesota has led the way on, Evans said.

“The goal is to get all law enforcement across the United States reporting in this so we can make comparisons and we can understand what this data actually means… So that we can make policy decisions as to what we can do to improve or change approaches to law enforcement as a profession.”