Report focuses on deaths occurring during service calls and law enforcement encounters
Establishing data summary of deaths, including suicides and accidents, offers opportunity to develop prevention strategies.
ST. PAUL — A new report from the Minnesota Department of Health found that during 2016-2021 there were 177 fatalities that occurred during law enforcement service calls and encounters in Minnesota, where 45% were due to interpersonal use of force, 31% were suicides, 22% were accidents and the remaining had a cause that could not be determined.
To focus on possible upstream prevention efforts, MDH pulled together data from different sources that track these fatalities. The MDH report is a starting point that includes suicides and accidents, as well as use of force deaths, to gain a greater understanding about what is involved during encounters and service calls that result in a civilian or officer death.
“When a death occurs during an encounter with law enforcement, we know there are effects for the person who lost their life, others involved, families, and communities,” Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm said in a press release. “This report is a start for exploring the challenges and opportunities we face to find upstream solutions for reducing the health and safety consequences of these events and to potentially prevent loss of life among civilians and officers.”
“This collection of data serves as another part of the community conversation that we should all be engaged in so that we can explore how to prevent, reduce and address fatal interactions. It’s key to understand that these cases are not a single point in time that begins or ends when law enforcement gets involved,” Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said in a press release. “We know from our own Working Group to examine Police-Involved Deadly Force Encounters that law enforcement professionals are called to address a wide range of societal issues, including persons in drug-induced crisis, people living with mental illness, or other disabilities. Anything that helps us to examine what can be done to resolve these incidents safely even before law enforcement becomes involved, is a step in the right direction.”
MDH’s methodology mirrors the one used by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics Arrest Related Deaths program. Manner of death finding, such as death caused by interpersonal use of force, suicide, or accidental, is based on what is recorded on a death certificate by a trained professional, usually a coroner or a medical examiner. A death caused by interpersonal use of force refers to any death resulting from one person’s volitional act towards another.
This study focuses on deaths resulting from encounters in the community between law enforcement and civilians where the law enforcement official was acting with the intention of arresting lawbreakers, suppressing disturbances, maintaining order or performing another legal action. For this reason, the study’s scope did not include deaths occurring in correctional facilities, such as prisons or jails, or when an officer was not encountering a civilian. For example, this report’s case definition excludes incidents where an officer died in a motor vehicle accident unrelated to an encounter with a civilian, or incidents where an officer died of an illness acquired while on duty.
MDH combined data sources including the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s Use of Force Data, Minnesota death certificates, the National Violent Death Reporting System , and the online Fatal Encounters database . MDH found that, while each dataset had its own advantages for case detection, no individual dataset was able to capture all the deaths, including suicides and those associated with accidents and use of force.
The combined dataset identified 177 use-of-force deaths, suicides, accidental deaths, and other deaths in Minnesota during the study period. Of these deaths, 79 (45%) were classified as deaths due interpersonal use of force, 54 (31%) were classified as suicides, 39 (22%) were classified as accidents, and 5 (3%) were classified as “could not be determined.”
Of these deaths, 120 resulted from one or more gunshot wounds, and 44 resulted from a motor vehicle collision. The remaining 13 deaths involved two drownings, two restraints, two falls, one stabbing, and six deaths that could best be described as a medical emergency. There was an average of about 30 deaths a year, including 33 during 2016, 25 in 2017, 26 in 2018, 28 in 2019, 29 in 2020, and 36 in 2021.
According to the study definition, there was one law enforcement official who died during an encounter with a civilian in the community during the study period. More information about injuries sustained by law enforcement officials on duty can be found using the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Crime Data Explorer .
“I have often said to the widows and families left behind that we will never forget the sacrifices of their loved ones. Data reporting violence in law enforcement presence should and must include instances when our corrections and law enforcement professionals are lost,” Harrington said. “It would be helpful to expand data collection to further understand these occurrences. Minnesota Department of Corrections Officer Joseph Gomm, Red Lake Nation Officer Ryan Bialke, and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Sarah Grell are among the lives we have lost in the line of duty and among the events that deserve remembrance and examination.”
The analysis also found racial disparities. Though most encounters, 109, involved white Minnesotans, Black civilians were about 4.5 times as likely as white civilians to be involved in a fatal encounter and American Indians were 5.7 times as likely.
MDH recommends taking a public health approach to the issue including convening a committee of stakeholders and experts that would meet to use public health tools to identify patterns and make recommendations for preventing future incidents. One such tool is public health reviews that would look at the factors leading to a death associated with a law enforcement encounter. These reviews are a proven public health tool currently used for complex health issues like maternal mortality, infant deaths, motor vehicle crashes and drug overdose deaths.